Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Pain and the Scandalous Beauty

Words are failing. I've been too busy to think about writing something substantive for the blog, but I've been struck by lately by how many people are writing and talking about pain and suffering. Is there something brewing? The world and the Church never has any lack of hurting people, but it seems lately we're talking about it more. I would link to some places but they would distract from the links I'm about to ask you to visit.

You should read this.
And this.
And watch this.

Each post is about pain and grief. Each post is also beautiful in different but specific and penetrating ways.

I have nothing fresh to add to what is written at those places.
But for some reason I was reminded yesterday of the following piece of mine from back in the Shizuka Blog days. It is a narrative-type thing from July 2005 that I simply called Houston. It's not big on advice or theology, but it helped me to share it then, and it helps me to share it now. As it apparently blessed some people then, I hope it blesses you now.
We live in a beautiful world
Yeah we do, yeah we do . . .

-- Coldplay

I am visiting family and friends in Houston right now, a city I only lived in for about five years starting in the tenth grade but which I nonetheless consider my hometown.

Last night I had a great dinner of Tex-Mex with my mentor-pastor Mike Ayers. We talked about Jesus, which is usually what we talk about, and the subject never fails to excite us. Fresh from that passionate conversation, I drove around a bit as night began to fall on Northwest Houston. This city is not much to look at; you have to know where to go to find the natural beauty. We brought a friend for Christmas two years ago, and she was shocked to actually see trees here. Once we showed her the right places, she conceded that Houston is indeed beautiful.
But you have to know where -- and how to look.

No one in their right mind would choose to live here. People live here by necessity, and the people who live here out of compulsion (or, like me, don't live here but still feel that compulsion) want to live here because of some emotional or familial connection to the place. In my case, the connection is also ecclesiological.
But it's not much to look at. It is concrete and steel. Dense traffic. Nice new upscale stores on FM 1960 jammed butt-up against old dilapidated stores. The streets are lined with restaurants and you could eat at a different place every night of the year if you wanted to.

And the heat. My goodness, man, the heat. I laugh at people in Tennessee when they complain about the heat there.

I have been told that Houston has not had rain in over a month. So the place is sticky-wet with humidity, but the grass is browning and the trees are starving. The place needs a cool-down rain.

After I stopped off at my in-laws' home after dinner last night, I headed back out for some coffee. It started to rain. I felt privileged to be here for the rain that ended the drought.

I saw people scattering. The lady at the coffee shop drive-thru said something to me that escapes me right now, but it blessed me somehow.

You know that people are hurting, right?
People in real life.
And a blogospheric conversation was fresh on my mind last night; it was about hurt too.
So I'm driving around in "ugly" Northwest Houston, watching the lights of evening shimmer on the wet streets, thinking about everybody I know who's hurting or who has recently experienced a hurt and everyone I drive by -- in cars, on the sidewalk, in their driveways or yards as I pull back into my family's neighborhood -- I'm looking at their faces.

I'm looking at their faces and thinking about hurt and thinking about the Jesus talk I just had with my old pastor.
And Coldplay is in my CD player, and Chris Martin is singing "We live in a beautiful world, yeah we do, yeah we do."
And I almost started crying, because I believed it. In hot, humid, gross, concrete-and-steel ugly Northwest Houston I believed the world was beautiful because wherever you go there are people made in God's image and there are people Jesus died for and there are people who live lives and think thoughts completely outside my selfish life and mind.

Today I went up to the church I (sort of) grew up in. I was a teenager in the youth group there. I worked maintenance there from the time I was of employable age to the week we moved away to Tennessee. I also ministered there for a couple of years after graduation.
Some people know this but this church, which began as a place of promise and growth for me, eventually became a place I couldn't wait to escape. It became a place of incredible heartache for me, of experiences I can only describe as spiritual and emotional abuse.

I have posted recently about forgiveness. It is a troubling concept for me.
A couple of years ago one of the people at this church who was most responsible for some of the deepest hurt and disillusionment I have experienced suffered a moral fall. When I heard the news I was intrigued by the fact that I didn't feel any sense of vindication. I suppose that, without knowing it, I had grown past that. A year or so earlier, and I probably would have taken some sort of perverse pleasure in knowing that someone who caused me such pain was now "getting his." But that didn't happen. Learning the news didn't surprise me (for reasons I won't go into), but I was actually saddened by it. Whatever confirmation it provided about this man's character, it was not a pleasing confirmation.
That was an unexpected test of my conviction that I had forgiven him.

In the years since I left that church, I have always been reluctant to go back and visit. This has been hard to explain, because 1) I have so many friends and family who still go and serve there, and 2) the church has changed so much since I've been gone. It is not really the same place.

But it's the same building. (And one other staff member who was/is more difficult to forgive is still there.) The few times I've walked in to visit (I've never attended a service there since leaving) I have really been tested emotionally and spiritually. A lot of bad memories come back. I remember which hallway I was in when I wanted to throw a chair through a window because of something said to me. I remember which office I was in when someone said something really hurtful to me.
The wall color has changed. The offices have been rearranged. Heck, the whole place has grown enormously, with added wings and buildings and bubbling fountains. But the same voices are there, especially the ones that the building puts in my head.

I don't remember the last time I visited, but the minister who eventually "fell" had not fallen yet and was still there. It was just my luck that we happened to cross paths. In the span of probably a three minute conversation, in which he did nearly all of the talking, he told me about two different ministries he gives money to and managed to work in a passive-aggressive jab at the church I joined after leaving his.

Having that conversation with a man who caused me so much pain in a buidling I really didn't want to visit in the first place was enough to make me decide when I left never to set foot in there again. I mean, I knew that wasn't realistic, but if I was serious about forgiving people and getting past hurts from my past and staying away from bitterness, I figured it was in my best interest not to go back again.

Today I visited the church. Just like the time I got the news that the minister had fallen, I was intrigued by the fact that I remained calm. I didn't have to tell myself to do so; I just did.

My brother and a few of my friends are on staff there. They showed me around a bit. I had never seen the inside of the "new" sanctuary.
I let my brother and my good friend Rob show off some of the stuff they had been doing -- displays and brochures and other handiwork. I let them tell me about the lighting and the way messages are burned on CD now (not recorded on tape) and about the outdoor baptistry.

And beyond that, I let them -- I let myself -- reminisce. We stood in the front atrium, a place that was there when I was there (so much of the structure has changed since I'd been gone), and talked about old times. They led me around the building and we looked at what had changed and what hadn't.
It felt . . . okay.
I was glad to be doing it.

I saw that the stair railing I painted had not been repainted or covered. The wood I had sanded and varnished remained. Carpet I helped lay was still down in some areas.
I saw that a piece of the life I lived there remained. The good piece.

(Is this making any sense? I know I'm rambling.)

I also learned that the place has changed just enough that I like what what part of myself still lingers there and I am interested in the parts that are there that had nothing to do with me and I am unhaunted by the bad memories I had of the place.

As I left, I was saying goodbye to the receptionist who had been there since before my family even joined the church. Before my "tour," I had talked with her about old times, old bosses, old funny memories of working there together. As I was making my perfunctory goodbye pleasantries, she said somewhat abruptly, "You know my Bobbby died, didn't you?"
I did, actually. Bobby was her husband, a great big teddy bear of a man that everybody loved. I learned of his death the week it happened from my mother in law.

"Yes," I said.
"December 20," (I think) she said. "But it's still with me." (That's not exactly what she said, but she was indicating that she was still struggling with it.)
I didn't know what to say. She was looking at me, looking for a response. I don't know if she expected something special since we have a history of sorts, of if she has been doing this to everyone and was just still releasing. I felt awkward. What do you say to an older lady who's suddenly without warning reminded you her husband died and she's still dealing with the pain?

She added more detail. "He was 65."
"That's young these days," I offered. I was trying to think of something.
"I know," she said. "Just poof. He died before he hit the floor.

How do you respond to that? What could I say that wouldn't sound lame but that would still be somewhat comforting? As I'm trying to leave! Is there any graceful way to offer encouragement and comfort and then leave?
I told her that we'd be praying for her. We exchanged another awkward goodbye. I think I added a "Take care," and then I left.

People are hurting. Seriously. I've just been burdened about this so-obvious-I've-missed-it fact in the last month or so.
But Jesus still excites those who love and are trying to follow him.

It's a beautiful world where the wounded people are, in the places where wounds are made. But only if you see Jesus in those people, be Jesus to those people. And follow Jesus to those places.

Mike Ayers's "life verse" is the one in Matthew (too lazy to look it up) where Jesus sees the crowd and had compassion for them because they were all sheep without a shepherd.

If we love Jesus -- wherever we live and whatever we've been through -- we live in a beautiful world.
Yeah we do.

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