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(This is part of my ongoing exercise on listening prayer. At the end of Day 4, we write a love letter to God expressing our heart. This is mine.)
You are the reason
hope is alive in my bleakest hour.
You are the inner buoyancy
that sustains my soul
when my circumstances are an utter shipwreck.
You are the motivation
to pick myself up and start again
when I fail to live up to the Christian ideal.
When I thought I have lost my innocence
when I lost faith in humanity,
when there is no one I can trust,
You are the one who help me
seek beauty among ashes.
Because of You
I have a reason for hope
and an excuse for celebration.
Form everlasting to everlasting,
You are my spring of living water.
In you I find my rest.
My good shepherd,
my faithful friend,
my perfect redeemer,
my wise Lord,
my constant comfort,
my fullnes of joy,
my hope everlasting,
I love you.
I have a bad feeling that my daughter’s friend who lives in the same block as us has a serious illness. My daughter is 7-years old and I think this girl is about 9 or 10 -years old. Shortly after Christmas last year, we did not see her anymore. I found out later from my maid that a mysterious growth, about the size of a child’s fist, appeared out of no where on her thigh the day after a Christmas party which my daughter also attended. She had been in and out of hospital ever since. For reasons unknown, her parents prefer not to have visitors for their child and any form of communication is very limited. I can only guessed that they didn’t want to subject their child to insensitive remarks by other children knowing how little children can be. I heard that the girl has lost her hair. Later I got to know from friends that cancer patients had to be isolated for fear of contracting any viruses or germs due to their weaker immunity from chemo sessions. I was deeply grieved when I heard of her condition and feel a profound sadness for both the girl and her family. It wasn’t too long ago they lost their baby boy. I am not sure what was the cause of that. Whatever it was, I must have also been the reason why the boy could never sit up since birth. The family maid had to carry him on a sarong wherever she goes. It think he was only about 2 years of age when he returned to God. How many times can a parent endure such pain?
I’ve only seen the girl a couple of times and the mother probably only once. I don’t even remember her face now. Most of the time the girl comes over to play with Ashley when I was at work. Sometimes my girl will also play at her house. I know that the same group of friends will go down to play at the playground in the evenings. That was all before the mysterious lump showed up. All the other friend’s family are also asking about the girl only to find that the family has isolated themselves.
My maid and I are very heartbroken over this. My maid who is more familiar with the family, is still in touch with their family maid. It is through her that we receive updates on the girl’s condition. All of us wanted to help in anyway that we can but no one knows how best to approach the family since the parents are adamant about not accepting help and not allowing visitors or phone calls. All these were told to us by the family maid. Nothing we could say or do seems right in light of the situation. I don’t blame the parents for wanting to be left alone or even for feeling angry. They had been put through fire and hell not once but twice. They girl is their only child left. They have every right to feel cheated and disappointed with life and with God. I am just very concerned for the girl’s emotional and psychological well being as well besides her mysterious condition. It is not healthy for a young child to be cut off like that. The other day, I heard from my maid that the girl doesn’t behave like she used to anymore; that sometimes she will have wild mood swings and even laugh to herself. It just breaks my heart hearing it.
If any of you reading this are people of prayer, please join me in prayer for Victoria. I tried a new way of prayer yesterday, called Praying in Color and will be dropping it into her mailbox tonight. I hope it will bring some encouragement to the parents and cheer to the child.
I have news to share and it is already 2 weeks overdue!
My Dad’s long search for God had finally come to an end. He had reached a decision. After more than 2 decades of searching for answers to the inner most need of the human soul, the need for a meaningful spiritual existence, he had taken the Pascal’s Wager and decided to place his stake on Christ! It was a surreal moment seeing him make his way through the crowd in response to the grace of God, the gift of salvation, Jesus Christ himself. It was unbelievable given his past resistance. We discovered later that he still does not have all the answers to his satisfaction but I guess what he had was enough to take the leap of faith. What can I say, truly God is faithful to save us and our whole household.
If you know my Dad, you’ll know that he has come a long way in his spiritual journey. He is skeptical and cautious by nature; not one to be easily influenced no matter how convincing something sounds. And there is an aura of pride around him so that he doesn’t submit himself to any idea or person without a fight. However, my Dad has always been in tune with his spiritual side. He is always curious about spirituality. In the years after his retirement, he spent considerable time studying the various religions. He would read extensively and love to engage in dialogues about them. As is typical of most Asian Chinese, my parents were brought up worshipping a variety of idols. Their worldview was a cross between Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Seeking guidance and protection from the various gods and forces via mediums and shi fu (masters) were not uncommon. So is fortune-telling and future-forecasting; they were part of South-East Asian Chinese culture. Later on, both he and my Mom became heavily involved with Nichiren-Buddhism to the point that my Dad almost set up an altar for the Gohonzon in our home. As it turns out, he discovered something in it’s teachings which unsettled his heart, so the plan was aborted. Eventually, Mom came to know and accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ while Dad started investing his time and effort to investigate the purer form of Buddhism, pouring through Buddhist literature and sriptures. That covered a good part of his latter years. At the same time he also explored Judeo-Christian teachings especially after seeing his wife and his children converted one after another. I suspect in the beginning he felt it was a religion for weaklings and simple minded people. That was the way he sees Mom, thus he didn’t want to be associated much with it. However he did not object to her conversion, though he did on many occasions tried to ridicule mom’s young faith. Once, not long after my own conversion, he sent me a book on a Buddhist’s critique of Christianity and another to help me understand Buddhism. We exchanged several correspondence about our faith. With his extensive reading (he is after all a learned man), he felt he already knew all there is to know about Christianity and was even more proud of his deep knowledge of Buddhism. In his eyes, Christianity falls short (read: too simple) compared to the intellectual and deep teachings of Buddhism. Buddhism and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are worlds apart at it’s very core. Buddhists work for their own salvation and so have no need for a God. Christians receive salvation as a gift of grace from God the Creator, who is the reason and purpose for every form of existence. It is no wonder that grace is a difficult concept for Buddhist to comprehend or accept. Throughout these years, he was resistant to the Gospel, frequently finding fault with it and used the failures of the institutionalized church and individual Christians as justification for his rejection. Yet he was wise and humble enough to know that he could have missed something of infinite importance and so left a foot at the door to his heart and mind. Somewhere, somehow, a seed was planted and by God’s grace, it finally took root, after more than a decade. And all of heaven rejoiced with us!
As I went up to congratulate him, he said it was a decision long overdue! I was curious about how he came to such an unexpected decision. He said he could not deny any longer what his conscience and heart tells him to be true – we have a soul and there is a Creator God. He could not reconcile that witness in his heart with what Buddhism taught him. He also could not accept the teaching that one can never fully understand the Buddha Way until one becomes the Buddha. To him that is just as good as saying one can never reach the destination. My sister who sees more of him, living in the same country, feels that the recent episode over my brother’s situation could have further reinforced his need to find peace in God. She revealed to me how Dad wept on the phone over my brother’s situation but quickly hanged up out of embarrassment. None of us has ever seen our Dad cry. But that day she saw his vulnerability. Sometime last year, he also faced a period of uncertainty and worry over his health. Till today he will still tell you that it was God’s intervention that delivered him. On both occasions he confessed to asking Jesus for help. It was a humbling experience just watching him stretch out his hands to receive the gift of salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to relinquish control of his life and destiny over to Him. For someone who is always in control, this is a major step forward. Although some of his beliefs are still a little muddled and deviate from commonly accepted Christian doctrine, we trust that God’s Spirit now resident in him will guide him into all truth just as the Bible promises. Dad’s conversion has taught us never to give up trusting in God’s faithfulness. The answer to our prayers may take more than a decade to materialize, that was how long ago since my mother prayed for his salvation, but it’s not over until God says it’s over.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17
Dad’s new birth was on 24th February, 2008 at New Creation Church in Singapore. He lives with Mom in our hometown in Ipoh, Malaysia. They were visiting at that time.
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 was scouring the web for information on how to pray for cancer patients and their family when I came across the site of Beth Am – a community of Jews in California. I found more than what I was looking for in this article by Rabbi Janet Marder in Beth Am’s sermon archive. As most of you know, Christianity has it’s roots in Judaism. The values and history of the Jewish people are a major part of the foundation of Christianity. The version below is adapted from the original in an effort to make it shorter. The original was 7 pages long!
From Fear To Faith
“Birth is a beginning
and death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness—
And, often, back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith….”
At every funeral at which I officiate, I read those words, by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine. They capture for me an essential Jewish idea: that life is not just about growing older; it’s about how we grow as a person and develop our character and spirit. One line, though, always stands out for me. We can understand the progression from youth to maturity, the journey from foolishness to discretion to wisdom. We can see how a person might move beyond resentment and learn to forgive, overcome loneliness and learn to love unselfishly, learn compassion for others from suffering pain oneself, stop taking good fortune for granted and feel gratitude for the blessings in one’s life.
But what about the movement from fear to faith? Often we think of faith as something we leave behind as we grow in knowledge and wisdom. One writer, explaining his own atheism, wrote, “For people who have been lucky enough to have a good education, belief in God, I say, should be rejected.” In other words, grownups should outgrow religious faith just as we outgrow fairy tales.
Far from being the sign of a strong, mature personality, we tend to see faith as the refuge of the unsophisticated and weak – “a crutch,” as science fiction Robert Heinlein wrote, “for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help.” And rather than being the outcome of personal growth, faith often seems to us to reflect a narrowing of the mind and heart, common to those who cling to simplistic or even dangerous ideas.
Some kinds of faith deserve to be given up, deserve to be grown out of –or, better yet, we should not inflict such faith on children in the first place. But there’s also the kind of faith that Alvin Fine is talking about – the faith which we can grow into, the faith that comes with wisdom, with maturity, as a sign of inner strength. The kind of faith that can help us face our fears.
Here’s story about faith from the 18th century. Once there was a learned man, a man who prided himself on his education, and who boasted of being modern and “enlightened.” He made a practice of going from one rabbi to another to debate with them about their faith and refute all their claims and arguments, which he considered hopelessly old-fashioned. Finally he came to Levi Yitzhak, the rabbi of Berditchev, hoping to prove him wrong, as well. The rabbi looked into the man’s eyes and said, “My son, the great Torah scholars with whom you argued wasted their words on you. After you left them, you only laughed at what they had said. They could not place God on the table before you, they could not show you God’s reality, and neither can I. But think, my son. Just think! Perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is true after all.”
The enlightened man made the utmost effort to reply, but the word “perhaps” beat on his ears again and again, and he departed in silence. The rabbi doesn’t reject him or attack him for his doubts. He doesn’t debate with him either, but states flat out that he can’t offer definitive proof that God is real. He offers him, instead, just one word: “perhaps.” It doesn’t sound like much, at first. You’d think that a great religious leader should be able to come up with more than “perhaps.” But Rabbi Levi understands that “perhaps” is irrefutable. It simply opens the door to the possibility that God is, and that there may be something to religion, after all.
Immature faith is rooted in certainty, a conviction that it alone possesses the truth. It cannot tolerate ambiguity or doubt; it is threatened by opposing views. Far stronger is faith that is rooted in “perhaps.”Mature faith understands that all thoughtful people have doubts and must live with uncertainty. It is gentle, modest and humble in its assertions. It does not make grandiose pronouncements or give absolute assurances. Mature faith respects the world’s complexity; it acknowledges that there are many paths to truth; it does not seek to denigrate or dominate others through dogma.A second story, about fear and faith: A midrash says that when the Israelites, fleeing from slavery, came to the shores of the Red Sea, the frightened people began wrangling with one another, each one saying “I will not be the first to go down into the sea.” While they were arguing, a man called Nachshon sprang forward and was the first to enter the waters. Meanwhile, Moses stood in prayer before God. God said to him, “My beloved children are in danger at the sea, and you stand here praying?” Moses said, “But Master of the universe, what can I do?” And God answered: “Speak to the children of Israel and lead them forward.”
Immature faith looks to God as the parent in the sky who will get us out of trouble and solve our problems. But the midrash teaches something different: that human beings must face reality and act to solve their own problems, and that faith, and prayer, give us the strength to go forward. (This is what some call, active faith – we act, trusting in God’s guidance – not ourselves).
A third story, recorded in the Talmud, about the loss of an immature faith. A sage called Elisha ben Abuyah saw a young boy fall off a ladder and die while engaged in performing a mitzvah from the Torah. Upon witnessing this tragic event Elisha denied the existence of God and declared: “there is no justice and there is no Judge”
Elisha’s faith was rooted in the belief that God rules the world like a fair and attentive judge, doling out rewards and punishments exactly as deserved. They are human efforts to make sense of a chaotic world. This kind of faith is still prevalent in our own day, for something inside us longs for the universe to be just. But this kind of faith is destined to collapse in the face of reality.
Shirley Ranz, the child of Holocaust survivors, defines herself as a Jewish nonbeliever, saying, “How can I be religious? My parents went through the worst hell on earth. How could I believe that a good, powerful God would allow this to happen, allow the murder of one and a half million children?” Of course, it doesn’t require a Holocaust for us to question God’s justice. Even the undeserved suffering of a single person seems to challenge this kind of faith.
But Elisha ben Abuyah’s kind of faith was long ago repudiated by Jewish tradition (and Bible scholars). It’s repudiated by the Gemara, the very commentary on that story, which speculates that the ladder was probably rickety, and says that one shouldn’t rely on miracles when stepping on a rickety ladder. It’s repudiated by the book of Job, in which a good person suffers through no fault of his own. And it’s repudiated most powerfully in a remarkable passage in the Talmud : “Suppose a man steals a measure of wheat and plants it in his own field. – it would be right that the wheat not grow.” After all, it is stolen. But the passage ends by saying that the wheat will sprout anyway, because “nature pursues its normal course” Nature, that is, is morally neutral – earthquakes, hurricanes and viruses do not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked; bombs fall on the innocent because of the law of gravity, brakes tragically fail and cars crash not because God is plotting the action but because that is the way the world works.
Maimonides warned, in the Middle Ages, that it is naïve to imagine God as a wise and just parent who rewards and punishes us as we deserve. God does not micromanage the universe, he said, so heartbreaking things will happen. People lose their money, lose their homes, lose their health, lose their lives – and none of that is a manifestation of God’s disfavor. Rather, we live in a universe regulated by the laws of nature in which human beings operate with freedom of choice – and in such a universe the suffering of good people is inevitable.
If mature faith can’t offer us certainty, can’t offer us the comfort of being looked after by a God who will solve our problems for us, can’t offer us the guarantee that good behavior will protect us from misfortune, then what’s the point? What’s the value of a faith that leaves us with an ambiguous, dangerous, unpredictable and demanding world?
The value is that it’s a faith designed for the real world, the world we know through experience, the world that disappoints us and hurts us and challenges us every day. A faith that has the capacity to act with constancy and devotion; it is persistence and perseverance; it is the ability to withstand the challenges of the present because of one’s devotion to a greater good.
Faith is when a son goes to visit his elderly parents after work, and helps with the shopping and the bills and the medications, and listens to their stories and their complaints and tries to preserve their dignity, because these are the people who gave him life. Faith is when parents hang in there and refuse to give up on their teenage son or daughter, no matter how painful it is. Faith is when people stand by a friend who has cancer and travel with her all along the way, even when they’re afraid. Faith is when a wife takes care of her husband through many long years of illness because she remembers the handsome, smart and loving man who gave everything to her when he had the ability to give.
Love is an emotion, but faith is what keeps you going. Faith is hard. Faith is demanding. Faith comes from inner strength. This quality of faithfulness, of human constancy and steadfast devotion, applies to religion as well as human relationships. It’s hard to be a person of faith today; it’s hard to live by your faith. A faithful believer is one who holds fast to cherished beliefs, even when it’s easier not to.
What is the faith that sustains me in the real world? What is it I affirm when I say the word “God”? I believe that the universe is constructed with beauty, order and coherence. I believe that it’s astonishing that we are alive, and that the universe exists at all. I believe that all living things are profoundly connected, that human beings are one family, endowed with infinite worth and entitled to lives of dignity. I believe that we are not alone, and I believe that we are loved with an endless love. I believe that there are ultimate standards of right and wrong that transcend individual opinions. I agree with Bertrand Russell’s words: “I find myself incapable of believing that the only thing wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.” I believe that despite the fact that the world is unfair – indeed, because the world is unfair and unkind — we are called to do justice and to love kindness; and that is the purpose for which we were created. I believe that the world breaks our hearts, and that therefore we must help one another. I believe that our deeds matter, and that we stand accountable for the lives we live. I believe that, despite the abuses of religion, it can summon forth the best in human beings and inspire us to reach for the highest goals; it gives us a community of those who share our deepest commitments. And I believe that none of the above is a fairy tale. It is as real and important and powerful as anything I know.
Ultimate purpose; ultimate obligations; ultimate standards of good and evil; infinite love. All of those are implied, for me, in the statement that God exists. That is the substance of my faith. Just think – perhaps it is true after all! Life is not about intellectual exercises or the philosophy we profess. It’s about what we do with the years that we’re given.
Birth is a beginning, and death a destination, but life is a journey…from fear to faith. What kind of faith can help us to face our fears?
Let me answer, and conclude, with some words by Jerome Groopman, professor at Harvard Medical School, a physician and a deeply committed Jew who says the Mishebeirach for healing for his patients. He writes about Barbara, a 67 year old woman, a retired history teacher, who three years ago was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a lumpectomy and six months of chemotherapy, the cancer was found to be growing in her liver and bones.
“It’s important to understand,” Dr. Groopman says to Barbara, “that….even if we achieve remission, there is no cure for breast cancer once it has metastasized. Treatment is palliative.” “I know,” Barbara says. Her expression remains calm. Over the following months of treatment, Dr. Groopman marvels at the poise and calm that Barbara continues to display. “She showed no fear or anxiety,” he writes. And he asks: “…Could someone really transcend the fear of death….?”
Months later, when Barbara’s remission has come to an end and the tumor is resistant to every treatment he has tried, Dr. Groopman comes to tell her he has no other drugs to offer. He writes: “Barbara greeted me warmly, as she always did. I moved a chair close to the bedside and grasped her hand. After we chatted for a short time, I began to break the bad news. ‘Barbara, we’ve known each other for well over a year, and we’ve been honest with each other every step of the way.’ Briefly, her lips trembled, and then she regained her composure. Her eyes told me she knew what I was about to say. ‘I know of no medicine that I can give you at this point to help you.’
“We sat in heavy silence. Barbara shook her head. ‘No, Jerry,’ she said. ‘You do have something to give. You have the medicine of friendship’.”
The last time Dr. Groopman visits Barbara he notices that her eyes are sunken and her skin is pale. “It would not be long, I thought. I knew how much I would miss her. ‘Are you afraid?’ I asked. … ‘You know, not really,’ Barbara said. ‘Not as much as I thought I might be.’ I moved my chair closer to to hers. ‘Why do you think that is?’
‘I’m not entirely sure,’ she said. ‘I have strange comforting thoughts….When fear starts to creep up on me, I conjure the idea that millions and millions of people have passed away before me, and millions more will pass away after I do. Then I think: my parents each died. I guess if they all did it, so can I.….As Ecclesiastes says, everything has its season – a time to be born and a time to die.
‘And… I believe in a hereafter, that we can return to God. What form that takes no one can really say.’ Barbara grinned. ‘It’s not like I’m expecting to get on the Up escalator and be delivered to paradise. Or find angels there playing harps. I was never one for airy music.’
….Barbara’s tone turned grave. ‘Of course, I also have doubts. Everyone who believes has doubts if they’re honest with themselves. I suppose it could all be an illusion. But deep inside, it doesn’t feel that way at all.’
Dr. Groopman ends his story by wondering how he himself will face the end of his life. “My work regularly brings me in close proximity to death,” he writes. “Like every doctor, I have learned how to compartmentalize the fear and anxiety it naturally provokes, in order to function effectively at the bedside. Yet there are times when my own mortality breaks through, and I ponder how I will face it. I, of course, will not know until the time comes. The idea that I might feel hope at the end gives me comfort.” [Adapted from The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness]
“From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
But life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage
To life everlasting life.”
Just think: perhaps it is true, after all.
It has been an erratic week. I have prayed very specifically for 2 things the past week – a ceasefire in Lebanon and healing for my friend’s mother. On Monday morning the headlines read: Ceasefire in Lebanon to take effect today. Yes!!! I punch my fist into the air in victory.
A few hours later I received a text message from my friend. Her mom was to be admitted immediately for surgery. My heart sank. They don’t usually call for immediate surgery unless it’s critical. But there was still a glimmer of hope. I prayed. At 8 the next morning another text came in. – mom in icu after heart op…. cancer last stage…..doc says to prepare for worst. Half of what was left of my “hope” rope snapped. Anguish for my friend…..that’s all I felt. God….she has gone through so much….please don’t let this happen – I pleaded silently. I rushed down to the hospital after work that day. We hugged and I held her for a while as she cried. I wish I could take away her pain and tell her that everything is going to be alright. Helplessness is not a nice feeling. We want to feel in control. But life is designed in such a way that it humbles us. In times like this we can only cast ourselves upon God and stand by each other in love and solidarity. A nurse I spoke with later, told me with grimm face, that the patient was very sick. I know what that means….. but I prayed anyway. She passed away early the next morning.
Prayer…what is it anyway? For whose sake do we pray, and what we hope to gain from our prayers? Are we asking for something from God, or just seeking to unburden ourselves, to place our concerns before God and our community? Is our prayer mostly a message of concern we send to the one we’re praying for, intended to encourage our friend or loved one who knows that we are praying for him or her? Can a prayer for healing “work” if the sick person does not know that we are praying?Why God answers some prayers but not another is a question asked in every generation. It hovers over hospital beds, and kitchen tables, and silent rooms where someone lies awake and alone in the dark. It will not go away.
Despite the questions, we go on praying for the sick. We say or sing or whisper the words, even in tongues – sometimes skeptically and sometimes tenderly and sometimes desperately and sometimes choked by tears. The question of what prayer is and why we pray has many possible answers, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, it does not subscribe itself to a set of clear cut answers. But I particularly like what one rabbi said about the emotional power of such prayer. For him, a prayer offered on behalf of the sick, or by the sick person himself or herself, is an act of connecting directly with the eternal source of comfort and love. Commenting on a verse from Psalm 32, Greenberg says this: “one who trusts in Adonai (God) will be embraced by hesed (lovingkindness)”. The truth is: when you are sinking, when you are totally wrapped up in your own fear and pain, it is still possible to break out. God’s loving presence surrounds you at all times; God shares your pain as only an infinite consciousness can. God feels your hurt, kisses your wound compassionately. The divine steadfast love enfolds you even when the longed-for miracle does not come.”
Rabbi Greenberg’s words are neither naïve nor simpleminded. They are grounded in the belief that a sick person can be lifted out of fear, pain and isolation by offering or hearing words of prayer – ancient, sacred words that link the lone individual to a reality beyond the self. When the medical arts have reached their limit, prayer remains to sustain the soul — to remind us, if we allow ourselves to believe it, that we do not suffer alone. It is possible, even in the midst of illness, to sense that you are cared for, that you are held in the embrace of a God whose love encompasses you forever.
“When my first wife was utterly ridden with cancer cells,” writes Martin Marty, “…..emaciated and all, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking, ‘Oh God, reverse these cells and give me a healthy-bodied spouse again.’ That was simply out of the range of this mode of conversation. What she and I prayed for was that love would be stronger than death, that nothing would separate us from the love of God, that we would be given strength for the day when it came – and when it came, we had it.”
And perhaps that is ultimately what the prayer for healing is all about, and why no visit to the sick is complete without a prayer. We pray when we have done everything we can and there is nothing else that we know how to do. We pray when our own resources are exhausted and we need another source of strength. We pray as an expression of human love and attention, in the hope that pain and solitude can be eased. We pray in the hour of extremity, so that we can go on to face whatever we will have to face. We offer words of prayer when those are the only words we have left.
Rabbi Steven Moss, a chaplain at Sloan Kettering Hospital, writes this: “I recall once being asked to pray Psalms for a seven year old boy who was in a coma. As I prayed the ancient words, I knew I was not sure of the reason as to why I was praying. Was I asking for the child to come out of the coma and live a vegetable-like existence? Was I praying that the child would miraculously awaken from the coma and be totally cured of cancer? Or was I petitioning God to mercifully take this child’s life? In truth, I was asking for all three answers, as well as for none at all. For, by this act of prayer, I was not saying to God that I wanted one answer over the others; for each, in human, real-life terms, had its own difficulty. By this act of prayer, I was doing the only thing I knew to do at this desperate moment, which was to place this boy’s existence in God’s presence, through my presence of love and care for this child.”
That basically sums up how I felt when I prayed for my friend’s sick mom, especially towards the final stages. Sometimes, I’d stop midway and give up trying to articulate anything because I was so confused and do not know what exactly to ask. None of them are believers either, so that makes it a little more complex. But reagardless, I always end by placing her and her family in God’s presence.
Portions of this article are taken from Rabbi Marder’s sermon – A Prayer for Healing. In my next post, I will be sharing another article (also from Rabbi Marder) that explores what faith is, especially in times of crisis and desperation. It is one of the best commentary I’ve read on the subject of faith and it came at the right time as I’m seeking to make sense of the past week.
“Prayer is a gift from Almighty God that transforms us, whether we bow our heads in solitude, or offer swift and silent prayers in times of trial. Prayer humbles us by reminding us of our place in creation. Prayer strengthens us by reminding us that God loves and cares for each and every soul in His creation. And prayer blesses us by reminding us that there is a divine plan that stands above all human plans.
In the stillness and peace of prayer we surrender our will to God’s will, and we learn to serve His eternal purposes. By opening ourselves to God’s priorities, our hearts are stirred and we are inspired to action — to feed the hungry, to reach out to the poor, to bring aid to a widow or to an orphan or to the less fortunate.”
Here is a list I’ve managed to compile from various sources. They are not in any particular order. Please use them during your own prayer time or as a group. Feel free to modify them as you deem fit.
Please pray for God’s guidance:
- That wars and rumors of war are set aside for people to make implements that save life more important that the ability to bring death;
- That the voices of peace may be heard over the thunder of clashing armies;
- That where no hope for peace seems to exist, that new relationships might bud and” grow to the full flower of a peaceful world.
- For Israel, Lebanon, the Palestinians and all nations that seem to be on the brink of aggression and in search of retaliation.
- For the leaders of the Middle East that they might find new ways of living together that are not dependent upon military muscle and terrorist raids.
- For peace and diplomacy between these two countries and for God to work in the hearts of those most affected by the current situation.
- For Lebonan families devastated by the bombing; pray also that humanitarian organizations and local authorities can effectively meet the needs of children and families who have lost their homes, belongings and livelihood.
- For an end to the hostilities that have caused serious suffering to the people of Lebanon, Gaza and Israel. T
- That political leaders will actively pursue diplomatic solutions and that reconciliation and long-term peace will be the result.
- Both Lebanon and Gaza have experienced devastating infrastructure losses with severe shortages of medical services, fuel, food, electricity and water resources. Pray for the hundreds of thousands who have been displaced from their homes and that humanitarian corridors will be opened quickly so that relief supplies can flow effectively to those needing assistance.
- For the staff of the various humanitarian organizations being deployed to help with these emergencies, and the leaders and other members of the senior management team as they provide leadership and coordinate their response to this crisis.
- A spirit of forgiveness and justice to all sides.
- Lebanese Christians (roughly 40 percent of the Lebanese population) would act faithfully, charitably, and boldly, and know that other Christians remember them during this crisis.
- Wisdom for political and other leaders to act with wisdom and discernment.
- God’s peace and wholeness (shalom) would reign in the region in a way it has not for quite some time
- God would be honored in how peace comes
Please see also this list of prayer request from christian leaders in Israel and Lebanon. Feel free to add your own prayer request and links in the comment section.
I was in the subway during the morning rush hour, occupying myself with today’s headlines in the papers and there it is again…more civilian casualties in the ongoing Israel-Lebanon conflict. I can’t stand looking at images of suffering children. The situation seems to be worsening every day. Suddenly there was this intense emotion and urge to do something other than looking away.
So I did 2 things today. By now I’m feeling very silly over one of them.
- I sent out an email to my boss suggesting that the pot-luck lunch my department is organizing this Friday to celebrate our nation’s independence, be turned into a charity lunch instead, to raise funds for humanitarian aid for victims of this conflict.
- I asked a brother-in-Christ, who is also a co-worker, if he is willing to help draft a letter of appeal for ceasefire to the American and Israeli Embassy here.
I know what you’re thinking. But compared to my other fantasized options, these are the least “ridiculous”. My dear boss had to turn down my suggestion, in a very tactful way, citing need for approval from head office in US etc etc. I have yet to hear from my co-worker about my request. I don’t blame him if he has funny thoughts about me from now on. I mean, what difference would one or possibly two voices make when wordwide condemnation and calls for a ceasefire had been ignored?
If anyone is expecting me to take sides and spew venom on either parties, you’re at the wrong blog. This is not the time to push blame and point fingers. There is so much we do not know. But one thing we do know; thousands of civilians (Jews, Christian, Muslim and others) are paying with their lives daily and it breaks our heart especially when a vast majority of the victims are children. It pushes our conscience to do something to either stop or alleviate their suffering or at least voice our protest. We must stop fanning the fires of hatred and start spreading the spirit of forgiveness and peace and stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. Stop talking about who is right and who is wrong or if this is God’s will or if this party or that party deserves it or if this is a sign of the Final Battle and if so, to hasten it’s coming and ya da ya da ya da. You will never get to the bottom of it. You will only generate more hatred and cause more suffering. So please stop.
Do something that will be of help instead. Besides prayer, fasting and financial aid you can also help by signing petitions to call for a ceasefire. I’ve included 2 links below. You may also want to google it. There are many more online petitions. I’ve already spend a good hour signing them this morning. A note of caution though. There are some online petitions which supports one party alone and is use to justify their acts. So please read them carefully. If you’re sending donations for humanitarian aid, a good way to spread peace and show your support for the suffering of all (not just those of your own religion) is to send them to organizations that represent the other races or religion. So if you’re a Christian, you can send your donations to your local mosques and synagogues as well as your own church, instead of just your church alone. Include a note expressing your sorrow and support for the suffering of their people and let them know you’re praying for them as well. The message you will be sending is one of unity regardless of religion. Often Jews, Christians and Muslims think they’re each others enemy but in reality we are cousins. We share the same spiritual heritage. If anything, we ought to be the ones that understand each other the most and are the closest. Although I do not think religion is the main issue with the current conflict, there is no harm fostering stronger bonds with each other and showing that we also care about their suffering. There are other humanitarian organizations that benefit all, regardless of race or religion. eg World Vision, Red Cross, UNICEF. You may also send your donations there by contacting their local office.
A lot of people are asking how and what they should pray for specifically. I’ll try to consolidate some model prayers and prayer requests and post them here as soon as possible. Do come back to check. Prayer is the most powerful tool especially when we are faced with issues so big they’re beyond our control.
I’ll leave you with this Open Letter to the people of Lebanon and Israel. It was written by venezuelan, Jose Arocha. This is the kind of message we should be spreading instead of fault-finding ones that does more harm than good.
“First, I would like to express my sorrow for what you are going through. You both feel hurt. I am sorry for your families in pain. My condolences and thoughts are with you.I have been engaged reading the stories, looking at the heart-breaking images, reading the discussions in online fora, news media and blogs. Some people justify war in the name of honor, faith or national pride and interests. I respect their position. However, in my core, I cannot justify war.
I believe that life is our utmost precious right and our source of joy. The life of a Lebanese or an Israeli girl could be the life of my children. For me, every girl counts. Every life is sacred. I cannot justify the stabbing of any single life.
In the previous times of history, signed by the lack of understanding and means of communications, many were the myths, many the misunderstandings, many the misconceptions, many the fears of the unknown. War was a human reaction to secure the life of the closest ones.
Today, July 2006, in the era of knowledge, information and communication, our human culture still drags those old paradigms to the management of conflict. In many circumstances we have not been equipped with the ability to dialogue, the understanding that nature demands a giving to gain, that our social nature is a conversation continuum of trade-off and negotiation. Today, dialogue is our ultimate tool for the survival and advancement of life.
On the other hand, our natural social and cultural evolution also drags a history of psychological and emotional wounds. In the process of learning, we have made many mistakes. We have. And we could have not expected otherwise. For such is our nature. But this also implies, that as a human race, forgiving is of utmost importance to move on as society. The contrary is just jail for our existance and a vicious cycle of hatred and death passed to our children. Could we embrace learning, failure and forgiving as society?
To the hearts and minds of the Lebanese and Israeli, to the hearts and minds of every human being on this single and only earth, I beg you: Let us stop war with each other.
Let us embrace dialogue, learning and forgiving. Let us stop this suffering and embrace the joy of understanding. Let us leave war behind as a means of negotiation. Let us embrace each other in dialogue, learning and trading-off for the sake of every human life and the future of our children.
Peace be in you.”
For those of you wanting to keep tabs on the situation from non-American perspectives, the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz are major Israeli newspapers (ynet is also useful), and here is a complete directory of Lebanese news sites.
There is a song I want to share with you today. For the past week, many songs which did not catch my attention before suddenly starts to grab me. This one in particular lifts my spirit and imparts hope in the midst of bad news. A close friend’s mother had a relapse of cancer. In a time when all of them need to be strong for each other, they discovered some disappointing and selfish attitudes within the family. My heart breaks for her. If you’re the praying sort, please pray for family harmony, for reconciliation, for physical and spiritual healing and for God’s grace and love to be evident in this family. Pray also for peace in Lebanon and Israel, for God to tear down barriers to a fair and peaceful resolution, for forgiveness, for mercy. And for all who are hurting, lonely and suffering ……. to be washed in Heaven’s rain.
Healing Rain by Michael W. Smith
Healing rain is coming down
It’s coming nearer to this old town
Rich and poor, weak and strong
It’s bringing mercy, it won’t be long
Healing rain is coming down
It’s coming closer to the lost and found
Tears of joy, and tears of shame
Are washed forever in Jesus’ name
Healing rain, it comes with fire
So let it fall and take us higher
Healing rain, I’m not afraid
To be washed in Heaven’s rain
Lift your heads, let us return
To the mercy seat where time began
And in your eyes, I see the pain
Come soak this dry heart with healing rain
And only You, the Son of man
Can take a leper and let him stand
So lift your hands, they can be held
By someone greater, the great I Am
Healing rain, it comes with fire
So let it fall and take us higher
Healing rain, I’m not afraid
To be washed in Heaven’s rain
To be washed in Heaven’s rain…
Healing rain is falling down
Healing rain is falling down
I’m not afraid
I’m not afraid…