Archive for June 2021

Rationalizing Pain

June 9, 2021

WORDS FROM W.W.                                           June 8, 2021


Phillip Yancey wrote these words: “Pain is a foolproof producer of guilt.”

Pain is something we all experience and very few of us understand. It is the path of life we try to detour around and yet is the trail that requires us to walk from time to time.

I can still remember a book written by Ben Carson that talked about the importance of pain. Sometimes pain is a warning that alerts us to a situation that is happening, such as a finger touching a hot burner. If I had no sense of pain the damage could be much more severe. 

But some folk have a bad habit of spouting bad theology to explain the presence of pain. Often their God formulas are intended to bring understanding to the hurt, grief, or wound that a person is experiencing. For example, one person held the hands of a grieving parent who had lost her young child and said, “God just needed another angel in heaven!” 

First of all, it’s bad angelology. Regardless of what Hollywood has made us believe, we don’t become angels. More importantly, the loss of a child is one of the most excruciating pains to happen to a parent. I’m sure the grieving parent’s thought was to let it be someone else’s child get their wings.

We’re uncomfortable with silence in the midst of a person’s pain so we fill the void with nonsensical phrases that are about as helpful in understanding life as an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. We simply don’t know what to do or say with the occurrence of pain.

Songwriter and musician Charlie Peacock wrote a song a number of years ago entitled “This Is a Time For Tears”. It’s a powerful song that makes the point that one some life situations words are meaningless. I know, I know…that sounds like something Solomon would have written in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Maybe Solomon’s grim perspective on the meaningless of life had been penned after he had been subjected to a few pet God formulas pertaining to loss. There’s a line in Charlie Peacock’s song that says, “Don’t speak, say no words! There is nothing that you can say that can take this pain away.”

In my years as a pastor I was called upon to walk the trail of pain with the grieving a number of times. I’m so glad I had attended several seminars and workshops presented by Alan Wolfelt that focused on various aspects of grief and loss. Wolfelt operates the Center for Loss and Life Transition outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. He has journeyed with the grieving for decades and never tries to simplify the experience by suggesting someone do these four easy steps or say these five things. 

His insights helped me sit with a young couple whose unborn child had died in the womb. It was devastating for them. Thirty years later I still have vivid and heart wrenching memories of sitting in that dimly lit hospital room offering nothing more than my presence and prayer. That’s all they wanted from me. Anything more would have been a distraction from their need to grieve. It was important for them to experience the fullness of pain. They needed to wrestle with the questions of why their unborn had been taken and the self-doubts that had been echoing through their minds about what they might have done that had contributed to the death? Had they not prayed enough? Was there something one of them had done wrong that had caused God to take their child? As Yancey had written, “Pain is a foolproof producer of guilt.”

Whereas, sometimes pain is that warning about something greater, like our immune system trying to fight off an illness, there are plenty of other times when pain, simply put, just is.

When What You Believe Isn’t What Others Believe

June 5, 2021

I remember once in my college days at a large state university being offered a reefer. I had never been offered marijuana before, never even seen it, but I knew it was against the law (1973) to smoke it, so I responded with the first thing that came into my head. “No, thanks! I’m Baptist!”

Kinda lame. Kinda stupid. It did, however, come off as funny to the two guys down my dorm hallway who proceeded to inhale deeply. I encountered several situations like that where what I believed– my convictions– were not on the same page as most of those around me.

Being a follower of Jesus came with certain beliefs and leadings. Some of those beliefs were deeply rooted in the culture of my church, such as abstaining from the consumption of alcohol except for medicinal purposes. Other leadings were the result of how I sensed God was speaking to me. It might even be described as the rumblings of the Holy Spirit within me.

I can not argue that some of my decisions back in those growing up days were simply the result of wanting to be a good little Baptist boy. I no longer believe that a drop of alcohol on my lips is a sign that I’m descending the staircase into eternal darkness, although I’d still rather have an A&W Root Beer than I would a beer on tap. I do, however, see the chaos that the overconsumption of alcohol can create.

The quandary that many Jesus-followers face in these days of cultural turmoil is what to do when belief goes against what our culture now holds as the standard? You see, it’s often easier to go with the flow instead of being a Christ-follower. Like Peter, who denied knowing Jesus in those moments when he yielded to the popular view of the moment, a follower of Jesus encounters those occasions where his beliefs rub up like sandpaper with what he’s expected to believe or do.

As corporations and organizations take on certain positions that are uncomfortable to a person of faith the reaction can be adamant protest, surrender to the popular position, or somewhere in the middle. “The Middle”, in many situations, is the place where a person’s faith can be communicated while promoting opportunities for dialogue. It’s the conversational table where, as a Christ-follower, I can say “I hear what is being conveyed as the position, but my belief system is anchored to a different source of truth. In fact, there’s a scripture verse that says He is the Truth. I know that isn’t the accepted view of many, but it’s at my core. If you try to cut out what is at my core you leave me hollow and double-minded.”

Does the Holy Spirit lead someone else to a different position than me? Sometimes, yes. Do I understand why? Not very often. Am I open to my mind being changed? Yes and maybe. For instance, even though cannabis is now legal in Colorado does not mean that I believe in its recreational use. On the other hand, it does have medicinal qualities that can not be overlooked. Am I compromising my beliefs in seeing its value in that way? No, but if those two guys from years ago offered me a reefer again today I’d still say no. I just wouldn’t add the tagline, “I’m a Baptist.”

Remembering Doc Ryder

June 4, 2021

A month ago today one of my former college professors, Dr. Stuart Ryder, passed away at the ripe old age of 90. No matter the age, there is something about my former college and seminary professors that makes me think they will always be there, always instructing and mentoring.

Doc Ryder has been at my alma mater, Judson College (now Judson University), for half a century. He predated most of the buildings on campus. I never heard how he made his way from the state of New York to the minuscule college campus in Elgin, Illinois. In the summertime he’d make his way back to a cottage he had there. I remember him telling us about his neighbor, New York Knicks Hall of Famer Willis Reed. It seems, however, true to Doc’s nature, he always referred to Willis as Will. It was an indication of the fact that Doc Ryder was not so much impressed with a person’s celebrity status as he was cognizant of their humanness.

I only had Dr. Ryder for one class, an English Composition class of some kind that now escapes me. Honestly, even though I’m now an author and just completed a year of teaching seventh grade language arts, I can not remember anything from that class except that it met in the basement of the library. That is not to be a reflection on Doc’s teaching ability but rather my lack of interest in my higher education pursuits at that time in my life.

My closeness to Doc Ryder was in the area of athletics. He had become the athletic trainer for our cross country team. It was a way he could help and engage in a non-academic way with some of the students. Judson didn’t have the funds for an athletic trainer. Our cross country team didn’t even have the funds to stay in a hotel overnight if our Saturday morning race was a few hours away. We’d camp and slide into sleeping bags for a few hours before our four or five mile race the next day. Doc would be right there with us, filling the air around the campfire with his pun humor that caused a few groans. Tim Etternick, our team manager, was Doc’s “pun partner”, taking his cleverness into creating a pun that would be even more brutal than Doc Ryder’s.

Those campfire moments brought our team to appreciate and love our English professor in different ways than we did in classroom situations. One summer we took a team retreat to Baraboo, Wisconsin. We stayed in a camper at a campground and laughed and laughed and laughed. After all, you can only run for so long. What do you do the other 12 to 14 hours a day that you’re awake? You tell stories, and jokes, and listen to the ripple effect of puns coming from them.

Doc would follow up one of his humorous sayings with his unique laughter, a distinctive inhaling through his mouth that included a kinda gurgling sound. He would stand there with arms crossed and enjoy the lightness of the moment. He was a great man, highly intelligent, but able to relate in ordinary ways. Sometimes you are impacted by someone who doesn’t make a big smash on your life, but rather changes you as a result of a multitude of little ripples.

Rediscovering Adult Conversation

June 3, 2021

I’m six days into my post-seventh grade existence. A hundred and eighty-two days of hanging out with twelve and thirteen-year-olds have reworked my mannerisms and speech like a Texas move-in developing a twang. My language had begun to be peppered with tints of adolescence. Some words whose meaning I was clueless about had begun to filter into my bantering back and forth with students. As natural as saying “macaroni and cheese”, I had become almost fluent in the language of meaningless youth chatter.

And now I had emerged from the forest back into the groomed garden of adulthood. I’m wondering if there should have been a quarantined period in between the two groupings to make sure I was not infected with the inability to spell correctly. It’s as widespread as the flu amongst seventh graders. (I should have spelled it “flew” or “phlu”!) Adults actually spell out the whole word, not abbreviate it with the new language of middle schoolers called texting. “BRB”, “OMG”, “CUL” (See you later!), and “LOL”…I needed an app on my phone that could have translated for me.

So now I’m back with people who talk in meaningless mature conversations and discuss world politics in lengthy diatribes that make me want to hurl (Oops! Another seventh-grade term right there!). Whereas teaching seventh-graders is like being in a bubble, unaware of catastrophes and disagreements, adulthood is populated with people trying to be impressive.

My diet needs to make the transition back to food that is not saturated with sugar. I often wondered how many grams were in the typical seventh-grader’s daily intake. I mean, donuts and/or Sugar Pops for breakfast, candy bars for lunch in between servings of nachos and a pizza slice and rinsed down with a can of Mountain Dew. It’s no wonder that the munchkins were looking comatose by the time the last class of the day arrived as the sugar effect disappeared. So now I’m trying to make that adjustment in diet back to tasteless cereal and tossed salads. And, like most adults, I find myself sneaking in a candy bar or bag of chips here and there…quietly!

I never did master the ability to talk fluently about video games with my students. The only game on my iPhone is Words With Friends, something that is non-existent and unknown to them. Playing the online version of Scrabble would have been like spending a Friday night sitting at the kitchen table with their parents. For my students, they had become proficient in reaching Level 28 in some game, proud of beating their classmates in another game that they were able to play on their smartphones together, and experts in discovering hidden treasures and special powers to defeat their opponents, real and imagined. Education, slow to come to the realization, did create certain classroom games/contests to help make learning relevant for them…apps like Kahoot, Quizlet, Padlet, and FlipGrid. It will be interesting to discover how many students can identify hyperbole as a result of a classroom Kahoot competition compared to my talking about and writing it on the chalkboard.

Truth be told, I am more entertained and interested by middle schooler conversations than adult chaotic chatter, but when you’re with grownups whose physical and mental flexibility has done a U-turn toward non-existent you tend to stay away from doing handstands and cartwheels (One of my students finally convinced me to do a cartwheel one day. It’s probably now on YouTube under adult bloopers.)

Adults are both more responsible and more depressing. They are confusing and conversational, rational and repulsive. Seventh-graders can talk about passing gas and nose-picking as if it’s a part of any kid’s normal daily life. Adults pretend the smell from their backside doesn’t exist.

It’s going to take a while, but I’ll get comfortable with maturity again. Of course, I may become a lot less interesting when that happens. OMG!