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What is it about tragedy that changes people? Is it the initial shock? The searing pain that feels like a raging fire in the soul? The tears that line our cheeks and stick to the skin of our faces? The unstoppable convergence of every dark human emotion in a single moment and then the slow attenuation of those emotions over time?
Or is it the awareness that allows us to know that we have just lost something or someone dear to us, and the knowledge that, somehow, this awareness has created a border of sorts in our perception and memory of time and reality. A border between the Shocking and Painful Now and What Was Before. A border between the Me of this Moment and the Me of that Moment.
Whatever it is, tragedy and suffering changes us. Whether it be a literal fire like the fires that consumed the town of Paradise, California, or the kind of fire that feels more like our hearts are shattering into a million irreparable pieces, the experience leaves in us indelible marks. Marks that will always and forever remind us that things will never be the same. That I will never be the same.
A crisis is a terrible thing to go through, but darn effective when it comes to forcing oneself to seriously reflect, re-evaluate, and make decisions, sometimes life-altering. It was in the belly of the crisis of losing my daughters that I came face to face with the reality that I needed to re-evaluate what I believed about God in order to ensure the survival of my own faith.
I had to ensure its survival because my experiences tell me that God is here, with us. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber describes my feelings best when she writes of her own experience:
I once heard someone say that my belief in Jesus makes them suspect that I intellectually suck my thumb at night. But I cannot pretend, as much as sometimes I would like to, that I have not throughout my life experienced the redeeming, destabilizing love of a surprising God. Even when my mind protests, I still can’t deny my experience. This thing is real to me. Sometimes I experience God when someone speaks the truth to me, sometimes in the moments when I admit I am wrong, sometimes in the loving of someone unlovable, sometimes in reconciliation that feels like it comes from somewhere outside of myself, but almost always when I experience God it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection.Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of Sinner & Saint
I had two options: I could conclude that there is no God (as many do and have done in the past) or I could rethink what I had always believed God is like. The status quo would no longer do for me. I had to open myself up to the possibility that, maybe, just maybe, I was wrong about Him.
That maybe God didn’t walk our lands in the person of Jesus so He could claim to know what it is like to be human and then use that experience against us somehow, like, “If I could be a perfect human, then so can you.” That God isn’t sitting atop some throne up in the sky giving the Devil carte blanche to do this and that to me and you as payment for some ratty transgressions or as trials to produce perseverance or as tests of faith. That perhaps God doesn’t actually control everything because Jesus didn’t. That God doesn’t care that I call myself a Christian and believe in the self-sacrificing love of Jesus, but that He does care about what I do for “the least of these” in my community. That maybe God can be found and accessed and even worshiped in spirit and in truth outside of Christianity.
It’s amazing the things that suffering can open us up to. I think it has to do with the fact that suffering tells us that we can be wrong about everything.
That we can be wrong about what our future will look like. We can be wrong about the person we thought we would be. We can be wrong about the number of kids we would have. We can be wrong about the length of our marriages. We can be wrong about when we retire. We can be wrong about how much money we would have in our bank accounts. We can be wrong about our health. We can be wrong about our beliefs.
You see, suffering is what reminds us in no uncertain terms that we are only human and that, as humans, we are subject to a whole lot of limitations. Like, contrary to what some would have you believe, we cannot know with absolute certainty or prove that there is a God. If we could, then it wouldn’t be faith. Or, here’s another example: no amount of going to church or praying on your knees or reading your Bible will create some invisible force field to shield you from pain and loss because (surprise!) we cannot control what happens to us because the reality in which we live is pretty friggin’ unpredictable.
Suffering is humility’s Great Disturber and Disrupter because humility has a bone to pick with pride and arrogance.
True humanity is clothed in and bathed in and wrapped up in humility because we come from dust and to dust we return. In other words, our lives are fragile. Time is fleeting. We are mists that are here one minute and gone the next.* Our moments, precious. Our choices, meaningful. Meanwhile, pride and arrogance tell us that we are something we are not: God. And so when suffering comes along and kicks us in the ass, humility reminds us just how wrong and human we are. And then it invites us to wear it with compassion, gentleness, and patience,** and to live our lives like warriors, not pompous kings.
Humility is the engine that allows us to admit when we are wrong. When we approach life with the arrogance and pride of Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, we will never grow. We will never change. We will always believe that the Earth is flat and that the world only has a market for five computers.*** Because being wrong is integral to that process. Just ask Jews like the Apostle Paul who used to believe that the Messiah would come as a great ruler to free Israel from its oppressors and then realized that they were wrong and had to rethink what God is like.
Some may balk at the idea of rethinking what God is like, but we rethink things all the time. It is how we mature, how we grow, how we evolve — it is the lifeblood of progress. Throughout human history, we have rethought everything from what we believe about the shape of the Earth, to atomic theory, to the morality of slavery, to the right of women to vote, to what causes AIDS, to why the climate is changing. If Martin Luther never rethought the practice of indulgences and just accepted the conventions of his day, there probably would not have been a Protestant Reformation. Likewise, the tradition in which I grew up, Seventh-Day Adventism, would not be around had a group of people not opened themselves up to changing what they believed about the Sabbath and the second coming of Jesus Christ. Christianity would not exist if a group of Jews had not banded together with a Nazarene named Jesus and changed their minds about the identity of the Messiah and His purpose in the world. As I write this, people are rethinking the rate of the universe’s expansion and whether they should re-elect Donald Trump.
All of this is to say that we revise our understanding of things when we make new observations. We do this together as a human society, as members of a tribe, group or organization, as families, and as individuals. It is a never-ending process that involves being open to change and it is part of what it means to be human.
When we rethink what we believe about God, this doesn’t mean that we make God into whatever we want Him to be, but that we enter into a mysterious and sacred expedition of who He is, what He is like, what He asks of us. In other words, we learn, and learning is a process that needs an endless supply of humility and rethinking and correcting of beliefs.
Learning means that we humble ourselves and surrender to the possibility that what we believe about God might not be all there is to know about Him at any given time. That maybe, just maybe, God is still revealing Himself to us today in equally unexpected ways as He did when He came to us as Jesus, and that He will continue to reveal Himself through a process of unfolding that will never cease. And, make no mistake, this humility — this openness to change, to error and misinterpretation, to being wrong — is important because it is what gives us the ability to make new observations and to revise what we believe. At the same time, it is what unequivocally reminds us that what we believe may be nothing more than “hints and guesses“**** of the Real Thing.
How did losing my daughters change what I believe about God and the Bible? What is it about tragedy that changes people?
I think it’s that we can be wrong about everything and, if you let it, that kind of humility can be refining like fire.*****
*James, Chapter 4, verse 14.
**Colossians, Chapter 3, verse 12.
***Thomas Watson, the President of IBM Computers, said in 1943 that he thought there was “a world market for maybe five computers“. https://www.pcworld.com/article/155984/worst_tech_predictions.html
****Kent Dobson borrows the phrase “hints and guesses” from T.S. Eliot in his book Bitten by a Camel. This phrase is loaded with so much wisdom that I had to borrow it, too.
*****Mark Manson does a stellar job of explaining how being wrong is what leads to growth and change. You can read his article on it here: https://markmanson.net/wrong-about-everything.
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