Never Underestimate “The Abnormality of the World”

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stillSTILLWATER, Oklahoma – A fourth victim has now died from injuries received in a car crash at the Oklahoma State University Homecoming Parade on Saturday. A vehicle drove into the crowd of spectators causing the deaths and dozens of injuries. Three people were pronounced dead shortly after the crash, the fourth victim died at OU Medical Center. Along with the four killed, eight are critically injured, nine seriously injured and 17 others “walking wounded.” That’s a total of 37 victims.                                              

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frankI cut my theological teeth reading Francis Schaeffer in the early 1970’s, and he remains an important influence on my thinking and believing to this very day.   This is why, a while back, I listened to Jerram Barrs’ lecture on the “Basic Bible Study Themes of Francis Schaeffer” from his course “Francis Schaeffer: The Later Years” taught at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis (www.covenantseminary.edu).   I had worked my way through Schaeffer’s “Basic Bible Study” materials between Christian College and the beginning of seminary back in the mid-1970’s to great personal benefit. It helped me to see how all the pieces of the puzzle of Scripture “fit” together in a single picture, a picture of God’s redemptive love.  And so, when I discovered that Covenant had put Professor Barr’s entire course on Francis Schaeffer online (just one of an astonishing number of high quality seminary level courses that they make available free of charge) I signed up.  In this lecture, Jerram Barrs emphatically made the point –

God is not responsible for the brokenness of the world. This world is not the way that God created it, and human beings are not the way that God created them. Everything now is abnormal and distorted by sin. Do not blame God for the way things are.  Human sin has made things the way they are… (But) I hardly ever hear Christians talking about the abnormality of the world. If we do not talk about the abnormality of the world, we have absolutely no answer to give to people who have problems with suffering and evil. We end up saying that “it is okay.”  Someone dying of cancer might come to us, and we say, “This is really fine. God will take care of it.  Everything is going to work out well in the end.” This is an artificial answer that simply does not meet the person’s needs and is not true. It is not faithful to Scripture. Unless we understand the reality of the Fall, we have nothing to say to the person who suffers. Scripture forbids us to heal people’s wounds lightly or to try to soothe them with emollient words that pretend that things are not as bad as they are. One of the wonderful things about Scripture is that it takes the brokenness of our situation really seriously. It says it like it is. That is why it tells you to weep with those who weep, not to heal their wounds lightly. Just go and weep with them. Jesus is described as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. That is the way every Christian ought to be, those who really take people’s suffering to heart. We need to understand that people are having experiences that are abnormal. They are not the way God created them to be. Their reality and their experience of it is a broken one. Our call is to weep with them and have compassion on them rather than heal their wounds l lightly.

I have referenced this once before in a blog, and I’m pretty sure that I will reference it again before I’m through.  You see, the only way I can make sense of the world is from this vantage point, the vantage point of a good creation gone bad and that is in the process of being restored by God in Jesus Christ the Savior.

David Kelsey explained that the “gist” of the Christian message according to this understanding of the Bible’s “plot-structure” is that it is “a single narrative history having three temporally successive momentsCreation, the Fall, and Redemption.” Of course, this is not the only way that people can read the Bible.  But it is the way that I read the Bible.  It is the way that makes the most sense to me, or, should I say, it’s the way that helps me make the most sense of this world, and where God is in it, and what God is doing about what’s gone so terribly wrong with it.  And this is what frames my reaction to an event like the tragedy that unfolded last Saturday morning during the OSU Homecoming parade in Stillwater.  When bad things happen, and bad things do happen, they happen every single day and absolutely everywhere, I’m never mystified.  Horrified, yes.  Staggered, yes.  Empathetic, yes. Mystified, no… never.

davidIn what I regard to be the very best thing that he ever wrote, Harry Emerson Fosdick defended this tragic vision of life in an essay he called “Six Paradoxes Concerning Trouble” in his book Successful Christian Living (Harper – 1937).  He began by explaining that “Nothing more deeply influences the quality of our lives than the way that we handle trouble.” And then he proceeded to offer some sage spiritual guidance for how to handle trouble, things he said that many people miss because they are truths that are just “so paradoxical.”

The first paradox is that if we would be happy we had better take trouble for granted and accept life as essentially tragic and difficult.   Many people make impossible the constructive handling of adversity because they start by thinking that an untroubled life is the ideal, so that all their disasters become intruders to be resented.  Beginning this with a picture of life embowered in pleasure and quite weedless, they soon discover they cannot get on well with it.  For hardship outwits them, adversity climbs their stoutest walls, and their ideals of an untroubled life go to pieces in disillusionment.  They started wrong.

Let us, then, begin with the alternative proposition that life is essentially difficult and tragic. It begins with a painful birth and ends in painful death, and its fabric in between has dark threads running through.   That is why a great tragedy like Hamlet lives on and, generation after generation, holds a mirror up to nature.  Life is essentially difficult.

Concerning this proposal many will feel at once that it presents a gloomy view of life. No, my friends, not gloomy, but the only basis for happiness.  If we start by thinking that the idea; is an untroubled life, then adversity seems a wretched intruder to be resented, a miserable trespasser that has no business here.  But if we start by accepting life as difficult and tragic, then our blessings, the joy, beauty and love that enrich us, will appear so marvelous that it will seem a miracle to have them.

Here is a man who starts with the ideal of pleasure only – no disaster, no difficulty, only pleasantness and peace. Well, he is preparing to be miserable.  For he begins by thinking that ideal weather involves a cloudless sky, and every cloud will be an insult to him…

Indeed, does happiness really lie in an untroubled life?   Of course it doesn’t.  Some of the most tingling happiness we know is victory over opposition.  Give us a hard task, a towering difficulty, and strength to win the day – there is the secret of our realest happiness.  Happiness is not mostly pleasure, it is mostly victory. …Great happiness takes off like an able aviator against a head wind.  …Great happiness often has difficulty for its setting and adventure for its strength.  Even when heavy griefs come, there is a radiance on those who transcend and transmute them and find “some soul of good ness in things evil” that all the hedonists on earth cannot achieve.  This, then, is the first paradox, that if we would be happy, we had best accept life as essentially difficult and tragic.

Somewhere I’ve read that Billy Graham was once asked if he was an optimist or a pessimist.  And he is reported to have answered “yes.” He explained that he was a pessimist in the short term and an optimist over the long haul.  And that’s what I hear Fosdick saying as well.   It’s certainly the perspective that I take from Scripture.

comedyBack in 1977 Frederick Buechner, everybody’s favorite spiritual author, was invited to deliver the annual Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School.  Those lectures were later published in his wonderful book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (Harper & Row).   And here is how that Created, Fallen and Redeemed plot-structure of Scripture plays out in the lived faith of a Christian and a church –

The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts thicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy. And yet, so what? So what if even in his sin the slob is loved and forgiven when the very mark and substance of his sin and of his slobbery is that he keeps turning down the love and forgiveness because he either doesn’t believe them or doesn’t want them or just doesn’t give a damn? In answer, the news of the Gospel is that extraordinary things happen to him just as in fairy tales extraordinary things happen. …Lear goes berserk on a heath but comes out of it for a few brief hours every inch a king. Zaccheus climbs up a sycamore tree a crook and climbs down a saint. Paul sets out a hatchet man for the Pharisees and comes back a fool for Christ. It is impossible for anybody to leave behind the darkness of the world he carries on his back like a snail, but for God all things are possible. That is the fairy tale. And all together they are the truth.

In Stillwater, Saturday was the day of tragedy, a senseless, unspeakable tragedy.  Sunday, in churches all over Oklahoma, and the entire nation for that matter, the message that was both spoken in the Word that was preached and embodied in the sacramental signs of bread and cup that were shared, the people of that shattered community, and all of us, were “loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. And that is the comedy.”  And what we await now is the fairy tale, the “extraordinary” unexpected thing that will happen next, arising out of the tragedy and the comedy, something that we can’t even begin to anticipate now, or maybe we can.

The recent tragedy in our own neighborhood, the senseless abduction and murder of Zoe Hastings, has poignantly and powerfully sketched out for us the way that the Gospel of Jesus Christ inexplicably moves us from tragedy through comedy to fairy tale.

Zoe HastingsAt the funeral for his slain teenage daughter, James Hastings said he refused to be tortured by the way that she died. He said he would lean on his faith to pull him back from “the black abyss” and move past the day when he learned that Zoe had been killed.  “Her life was tragically taken, and to be quite honest, I don’t know why she had to endure what she did,” he said. “But I do know that her Savior was there to meet her in the end and that she was not alone.”  (http://crimeblog.dallasnews.com/2015/10/at-teenagers-funeral-father-of-zoe-hastings-says-he-refuses-to-be-tortured-by-her-slaying.html/)

And after the arrest of the suspect in her murder, Zoe’s family had one more thing to say.

A spokeswoman for Hastings’ relatives said they were relieved that a suspect had been captured, but they continue to struggle with the tragedy. “They’re emotionally drained and spent,” Shonn Brown said. “They didn’t just lose their daughter; they lost her in a senseless way.” “This family, as you can imagine, is grieving,” Brown said, “but is also happy about the way that this community has come together, because it is representative of the way that Zoe lived her life, a life that she lived for others.” (http://crimeblog.dallasnews.com/2015/10/dallas-police-will-have-2-p-m-update-in-zoe-hastings-murder-case.html/)

Created, fallen, redeemed.
Tragedy, Comedy, Fairy Tale.

When things happen that shatter your sense of order and leave your heart broken, don’t underestimate the abnormality of the world, or the power of the Gospel to raise us up to a place we never could have imagined before. DBS+

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