As all of this was going on in my life, my pastors in Seattle (whom I hope to get the honor of doing life with again someday) were dealing with a horribly scary cancer diagnosis for their son, a teacher who lived with his wife in Korea. They were so far away, and they were expecting their first child. Rich's wife had died of a very similar form of cancer years earlier, and now he was facing possible repeated history in his own son. They were able to get their son and his wife back to Seattle, but by then the cancer was extremely advanced. He was in a great deal of pain, and every day was difficult. He was able to see his new baby right before passing away this spring.
I had lost a job and was worried about being evicted and homeless, but that was nothing compared to the sheer helplessness of burying your own child after losing your wife from the same disease. Rich had since remarried, and his wife and co-pastor, Rose, had grown to love Rich's kids as her own. They both, together, suffered incredible loss and brokenness during that time.
I have never in my life seen such great faith. In my view, it was faith like that of Abraham or Moses. They continued to lead and bleed in their community. They let people love them through the whole experience. They didn't circle the wagons or fortress themselves in order to mourn in peace. I think such a response would have been understandable, and I know that I would have most likely wanted to go that route, were I in that situation. No one would have faulted them for choosing to retreat and tend to their wounds, but, still, they prayed faithfully for healing, shared their fears and hurts, and allowed others to gather around them and experience all of it.
I have seen many church communities fall apart under the strain of such an intense tragedy in the lives of the pastoral leaders. The community feels that the best way to love the pastoral family is to give them their needed space and time. The intention of the community is, without a doubt, loving and selfless. They want to serve and bless the people who have toiled faithfully to do the same for them.
The outcome, in my experience, tends to look a lot more like division and distance, rather than unity and deeper connection. Bad news of a particular diagnosis, or an accident, or some other tragedy hits the church community. Immediately, everyone springs to action. They are all praying for healing and rescue, while the pastors withdraw to tend to their family. If, as in the case of my pastors in Seattle, the worst possible outcome happens, there is a break in the heart of the people. It is almost impossible to reunite the people, because they experience loss without the ability to do anything with that loss. They are disconnected from the core people in that pain. They want to help their pastors heal, but feel helpless to do anything. The hearts of the broken become like leaky nuclear reactors, bleeding toxic, radioactive material all through the community. Also, very often the pastors, who still need to mourn and heal, feel responsible for the bleeding of others. They need to either ignore their own pain and seek to heal their community, or they will just avoid their people in order to further tend to their own wounds. Neither choice is good or healthy.
On the other hand, if God does bring salvation or healing into the situation, the community rejoices and the pastors return to leadership roles. However, the community has gone through that time alone, in their own way, while the pastoral family went through a very subjective and isolated experience of their own. There is still a disconnect, in this case rooted in definitively unique, separate journeys through doubt, fear, pain, relief, and rejoicing. So, yes, even celebration and healing can be divisive. Often, after such events, pastors will eventually drift to a new community or leave ministry altogether.
In Seattle, I witnessed a selfless couple who shared everything with their community throughout the whole experience of loss. They did not put on happy faces. They did not fake it or will themselves to believe in healing. They didn't deny reality or hide their pain. They let us all in! I knew that this would not end the way I had seen it end countless times before. By going through that together, they insulated and fortressed their community to completely prevent further loss. The outcome of their son's disease would have no effect on the health of their people, no matter what the outcome. I saw people receive healing in their lives of real, deeply-rooted pain, just because of having the privilege of being able to go through the suffering of their pastors.
That was faith. My self-pity and hurt, coupled with feeling very sorry for myself, seemed to be to be nothing worth holding up as faith, especially compared to the real faith demonstrated by Rose and Rich Swetman. However, through the whole journey, I was able to talk a great deal with them, and they often told me that they felt completely out of control and helpless. In fact, Rich said that he did not feel like he had any faith at all. Instead, he felt something more like resignation. There's that word again! Resignation.
So, I have been told I have faith, but it feels more like resignation to me. My examples of great faith in my own life, speak of resignation as their dominant feeling. What's the deal? What's the difference? What is real faith? Does it have something to do with options? Are we defining the term “faith” incorrectly?
Let me take apart the idea of having options as a clue to these questions. Abraham, often considered the greatest example of faith in history, had his faith tested on a number of occasions. According to the stories, one day he was told by God to sacrifice his promised child on an altar. I would have loved to have been there in order to ask a multitude of questions of Abraham. What was he feeling? Could he have said “no”? What options did Abraham have? We look at that story as an example of faith. We seem to accept that Abraham was not powerless, and that God would not force his hand. Because he could have chosen otherwise, we see it as faith. Choices seem to be a key element in our definition of faith. Maybe my own adventure felt more like resignation, because I had no choices. I lost my job and was greatly screwed over by life. It was, as they say, what it was. I could not have done anything to prevent the mess I was in, and I could not will anything to change. So, I let go and, with hands in the air, let God do whatever God wanted to do. Maybe Rich’s experience was similar. He could not do anything to heal his son, and he is not wired to go through this kind of pain alone. So, he surrendered, doing only what he knew to do. He had no choice.
Hmm...I'm not so sure. Looking back, I think Rich had some choices. He could have cut all of us off. He could have walked away from pastoring altogether. He could have even distanced himself from Rose (and she from him). Instead, they both chose to do the best they knew. They didn't see anything else as an option.
I could have curled in a ball of depression, allowing all of my pain and bitterness to pour all over my kid, wrecking him for further experiencing God himself. I could have not been a father to him at all. I could have worried about myself, rather than my family back home. I could have committed suicide, just to end the pain. None of those things occurred to me, because I am not wired that way. I chose to put one foot in front of the other, and do the very best I could.
Abraham most likely never even thought of disobeying God's command. He didn't think of it as a choice, because Isaac, the promised child of the Covenant, belonged to God, not to Abraham. He simply understood that none of his blessings were his own - not even his own life or the life of his child. So, the command of God to kill Isaac sucked. It was mean and horrible. But, it never would have occurred to Abraham to do otherwise. He simply wasn't wired that way. For Abraham, his act of tying his son to the altar and raising the knife for the killing stroke most likely didn't feel like faith. It probably felt like resignation.
Yet, we all call Abraham a man of faith. People still affirm me for my faith. I still see Rose and Rich as extremely powerful examples of faith. Maybe it has little to do with choices, and it has a lot more to do with the condition of the heart. I made a choice a long time ago to live my life a certain way. For me, it was a decision to be a disciple and follower of a 1st C. Jewish prophet and teacher, named Jesus of Nazareth. My decision, though I didn't know it at the time, was the one choice that set all of the rest into motion. Because of my desire to pattern my life after the life of my leader, I started to change and be reformed. Our faith makes us. It rebuilds our hearts. It happens so naturally, that it doesn't feel real and extreme. It is like the growth of our children. We watch them and raise them, but their development is incremental and seemingly slow. We don't notice their physical and emotional growth, often until we look at a snapshot of them from their younger days. In other words, my faith didn't shape me out of some force of my will or great control on my part to avoid bad stuff. I wasn't robbing banks and then, after the decision to follow Christ, suddenly behaving myself. My faith has absolutely NOTHING to do with moral choices. Suddenly, after my change happened slowly and incrementally, I find myself no longer being wired to ignore my son and spend time and energy feeling sorry for myself.
Maybe I need to stop being so hard on myself. Perhaps Rich does as well. Even though individual decisions may feel like resignation rather than faith, the original decision of faith to follow and submit to something and Someone greater than myself, was an act of great faith, shaping me into someone who could not any longer choose otherwise. That isn't fatalism or giving up. It is being a person who no longer chooses to belong only to me. I belong to God. My life, my family, my home, my job, my city, my friends, my money, and even my promised blessings, all belong to God. I hold them all loosely. Then, I become someone who makes wise choices. Either way, though God slay me, I will continue to worship God. THAT feels something like faith.
What does faith feel like to you? What has been your experience with getting through difficult times? Have you had a choice to do otherwise? Do you tend to be critical of yourself, or are you able to see your own faithfulness?