For example, this summer, I found this show on Netflix, called "Last Chance U." My firstborn son recommended it to me a couple of months ago.
Seems there's this little junior college in Scooba, Mississippi that scoops up football players who have gotten in difficulties, great or small, at big colleges, and stuffs them into a hard-nosed redemptive program. They are tough; they've got an academic counselor who stays on top of their grades and attendance, and she works with the coaches. Evidently, they've had some real success in getting some of these young men to turn around. And, in the process, they've won several national championships.
At the end of one of the segments, they show a scene from a local church. A woman does an interpretive dance to Kirk Franklin's "More Than I Can Bear." It's a beautiful scene, and it's a beautiful song; if you don't know it, look it up; here's a link to a performance . That's not the actual performance filmed for the Netflix program, but you can see how beautiful it is.
The lyrics say:
I've gone through the fire, and been through the flood;
I've been broken into pieces, seen lightning flash from above.
But through it all, I remember that He loved me, and He cares
And He'll never put more on me
Than I can bear
The dance, and the song, are incredibly beautiful, and have often comforted me when I was in despair.
I just don't know if the message is true.
On the other hand, I do know that THIS is true:
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. (I Cor 10:13, NASV)I understand this, and I am confident that it is true. When temptation comes my way, there will always be a be a way out of it. I am so grateful for this truth, and I have relied on it in plenty of dark times.
My disconnect comes when I try to apply the deliverance promise given in the above verse, which is about temptation, to the experience of pain and grief.
I haven't any idea how many days my heart has been hurt so badly that all I could do is withdraw to my man cave and sit in my chair, but it's a big number. Eventually, when I was strong enough, I would listen to the music of the wounded healers, music like 'More Than I Can Bear' and 'My Life Is In Your Hands' and 'On The Other Side of Through.'
And almost every time, before that session of grieving was over, I could join in with the singing, and make the songs MY prayer as well. Sometimes, that was the only comfort available to me; and it seems to me that the songs made my heart able to receive a bit of healing, and that, combined with my determination to keep my promises, has kept me alive.
I am so grateful to the writers and performers who have ministered to me in the very worst times of my life. The continue to do so; in fact, at this very moment, I am listening as I write these words.
I don't want to give the wrong impression, here; the pinnacle of my experience is not to sit grieving in my chair. I'm a father/stepfather to 10, and a grandfather to 12, and I am actively involved with my wife in the most important job we will undertake together: that of parents. That is a life-giving, and life-building activity. I can get up in the morning, and go to bed at night, secure in the knowledge that my life means something, that I AM making a contribution that matters.
But, even so, in the midst of things, along comes something that just kicks the breath right out of me. In fact, since I first started to write this post, a month has gone by, and I've been kicked three times. It's been an incredibly stressful time; I usually don't have so much coming my way. In fact, I'm guessing that I've gone through entire years without having as many challenges. Just a guess, though. I probably have forgotten things.
To return to my question, as I sit here with a keyboard on my lap, close to tears, and listening to the sweet music: is it true? Is the comfort they offer something I can count on? To answer that, I have to define the issue better. What is it, actually, that I think these songs are offering?
What I would LIKE them to guarantee me is this: nothing bad is going to happen to me; failing that, that nothing is going to happen to me that's going to overwhelm me. I'd like to be able to hold on to that like some sort of magical shield, or insurance policy. And I know that in the past, I've had that particular doctrine/approach presented to me.
Of course, it was also presented with conditions: they told me that if I just had enough faith, then no weapon formed against me would prosper, meaning a bad thing couldn't happen. Therefore, when I encountered adversity, I just needed to pray more, harder, longer, louder, differently. And then the bad thing wouldn't happen.
If the bad thing happens anyway, well, it's because I didn't believe enough, didn't pray enough. It's not that the PRINCIPLE is wrong; it's the fault of the supplicant.
And that just doesn't work for me, despite my desire to have bullet-proof armor. It doesn't match with my experience; and it doesn't match with what I know about God.
Not only does this concept leave a trail of broken people in its' wake, it's also explicitly proscribed by Jesus. IMMEDIATELY before the simple words of what we refer to as the Lord's Prayer, He says:
" (Matthew 6:7, NASB)Despite the fact that I WANT it to be true, it's naive to think I can pray virtuously enough, or do anything else, to eliminate bad things from my life. True, I can (and have) cut down on the bad stuff that comes my way, by changing my problem behavior. I don't get drunk any more, I don't drive recklessly, I don't smoke. I'm losing weight, and I go for walks. But even if my behavior was perfect, entropy is going to triumph eventually. I'm 64 years old, and at some point, my organ systems are going to break down.
Beyond that, I love many people, and they don't always make perfect choices. Even if they did, accidents still happen. Illness and injury are out there. And, in the worst case, there are some bad people in the world who hurt others. And when someone I love hurts, it hurts me.
So, I see that I have to give up this fantasy idea that there is something I can do that will keep all pain away from me. That's not what the words of the song I quoted say, anyway. They say:
He'll never put more on meWhat does that mean? Is it true?
Than I can bear
I don't see with the eyes of God, so I can't look into the hearts of men. But it seems to me that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, devoted his life to make a more equitable world. And I doubt there were many men who had more heartfelt prayers offered up for him than Dr. King. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that it's not a stretch to call him a good man, one of the best our country has produced. None of that prevented a bullet from ending his life.
Wasn't a .30-06 bullet more than he could bear? If that could happen to him, couldn't I also be overwhelmed?
This is the part where it gets weird.
Up until now, all of the mechanics of this suffering and comfort thing have been right out in the open. There has been something I could see, hear, taste, touch, or smell that was the mechanism by which I was comforted. I discovered that if I just held on, it would get better. I discovered that I could use my own experience with grief to comfort others in their time of grief.
During probably the worst time of my life, I signed off on my emails, "I am yet holding on," because that was all I had. And through that experience, I came to believe that if I could just keep holding on, it was going to be okay. And that's a Truth, with a capital T. It was a core belief of my life.
But, sometime in the past couple of months, I realized that there MIGHT just be things that I COULDN'T bear up under. Things that oppressed me so strongly, that my body just gave up. Was that...true? Could there be things that could do that to me?
I asked for help.
I went to my pastor, and spelled things out for him.
(And since I have no secrets from her, I copied my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant, foxy, praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA on the email. She freaked out. I had to reassure her that I was NOT losing it; I was just looking for some answers. She relented. A bit.)
He gave me a couple of scriptures that he found to be most meaningful when he had to walk with pain that just wouldn't go away. The one that spoke to me the most was this:
I Peter 4:12-13 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.And that was very encouraging; it reminded me that when disaster strikes, it's NOT something strange; it happens to all of us. As lonely as it feels, we are NOT alone in our pain. Furthermore, it's almost as if this is an investment in our future.
That's the weird part. For Christians, death is not the end; it's not what happens here that's important. It put me in mind of another verse I have had to call on before:
I found it comforting. It's a bit of a paradox, to find comfort in the idea that I might be given more than I can bear. However, it allows me to know that as long as I keep doing the Next Right Thing, I'm going to win, even if it takes my death to win.
Which should NOT be a surprise, bu the way. We are all going to die. It's definitely NOT an unexpected outcome. The timing may be inconvenient, but it's not a loss.
So, I guess my conclusion is: It may kill me, but I can bear it.
SOMETHING YOU MUST KNOW:
If you ask me to pray for you, I will sincerely pray that you be comforted. I will sincerely pray that you receive strength. I will sincerely pray for wisdom, and guidance.
On the other hand, if you ask Vanessa to pray for you, she will pray for you to be healed.
She accepts all the stuff I just wrote, and she leaves that to me, because that's my job.
Her job? To implore, and seek, and believe.
She is a praying black grandmother.
Peace be on your household.