Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Is That the Right Question?

“Harbor me in the eye of the storm
I’m holding on to the love you swore.” 

-John Mark McMillan, Love You Swore

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The other day on Instagram I asked: “How come we never wonder why good things happen to good people? Or why good things happen to bad people?”

My thoughts were a version of that all-too-common question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” As if there was some chart in the sky where God is tallying checkmarks, balancing our actions with our consequences. This also begs the question–who decides what makes someone ‘bad’ or ‘good?’ 

Barbara Brown Taylor deals with a variation of this exact same question in a selection in her book, “Home by Another Way.” Taylor, an Episcopal priest, recounts a time when she sat in the hospital with a distraught mother during surgery for her 5-year-old daughter’s brain tumor. The mother lamented that she hadn’t quit smoking and therefore God was trying to punish her. “That’s why my daughter has a tumor,” the mom said. Taylor shared a bit of her theology about the way God thinks about hard times and tragedies.

“Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong. We scrutinize our behavior, our relationships, our diets, our beliefs. We hunt for some cause to explain the effect, in hopes that we can stop causing it. What this tells us is that we are less interested in truth than in consequences. What we crave above all is control over the chaos of our lives.”

Taylor cites Luke Chapter 13 where the Galileans are arguing with Jesus about who deserves what because of their sin. Jesus will have none of it; people who die (or have tragedy strike) don’t “deserve what they get,” He tells them.  

(This) is a tempting equation that solves a lot of problems,” Taylor explains.  

1) It answers the riddle of why bad things happen to good people: they don’t. Bad             things only happen to bad people.

2) It punishes the sinners right out in the open as a warning to everyone.

3) It gives us a God who obeys the laws of physics. For every action, there is an                   opposite and equal reaction. Any questions?

“…but Jesus won’t go there. No, Jesus says, there is no connection between the suffering and the sin. Whew. There is no sense spending too much time trying to decipher this piece of good news,” she continues. “…it is not meant to aid reason but to disarm it…Jesus touches the panic (the Galileans) have inside of them… but (He) does not honor their illusion that they can protect themselves in this way, (but seems) to honor the vulnerability that their fright has opened up in them. It is not a bad thing for them to feel the full fragility of their lives.”

My daughter Leah first introduced me to the music of John Mark MacMillan, whose song lyrics open this essay. (She also took the seaside photo.) Leah has had five miscarriages. (update below.) The loss has been mind-numbing, the pain too deep to ponder and sometimes God feels very far away. As her mom, it has been a heartbreaking journey. For my daughter, well, it’s been hard to face one loss after another, to say the least.

Music is an anchor for her and she recently told me, “Mom, one song has been my anthem during this time–Love You Swore. I keep repeating the lines, Harbor me in the eye of the storm, I’m holding on to the love you swore. I know Jesus is faithful and has my best interests in mind for my life. But it’s just hard and all I can do is hang on.”

Some helpful, life-changing occurrences have taken place on this journey for my daughter and her husband. But some gut-wrenching experiences have been part of that journey. If I used the good people/bad people, blessings/hardships equation, there might be some sense in all of it. But sometimes life doesn’t make sense. Instead of looking for a reason or shifting the blame or finding an answer we need to sit with the pain and the grief and realize that Jesus is right there with us.

Taylor’s essay continues, “When panic sets in and we’re searching for answers (realize) that torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see, but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind that leads to life. Depending on what you want from God, this may not sound like good news to you. But for those of us who have discovered that we cannot make life safe nor God tame, it is Gospel enough. What we can do is turn our faces to the light. That way, whatever befalls us, we will fall the right way.”  (from ‘Life-Giving Fear’, Home by Another Way)

We can’t stop the storms in our lives but we can rejoice that our Savior sits with us in the midst of them. And we can also lift our hands to thank Him in the good things. He’s right there in storm and the calm seas, with all people. 

**June 2019 Leah and her husband welcomed baby girl Mary Rebecca Elizabeth Johnson in August of 2019. We rejoice in God’s goodness and grace.

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You can listen to “Love You Swore” by John Mark here

“Home by Another Way” by Barbara Brown Taylor is available here.

 

How to Save the World-Write a Letter

“Further, since being a writer involves the building of bridges between our own life experience and that of others, our job is to find the most significant points of connection between ourselves and our readers.”                                                                                                            -Luci Shaw, The Writer’s Notebook, essay in A Syllable of Water

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I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday how I felt in the days after September 11th. My daughter and I were in New York City that day and the next, staying with my nephew who had graciously hosted us in his Brooklyn apartment. After the world exploded, we set out for upstate NY, where my sister-in-law lived, with plans to camp out there until we could get on a flight back home to Seattle.
We overnighted along the way in a hotel where several pilots were staying. As shocked and traumatized as I was after the sky rained down ash and powder for 24 hours, I couldn’t imagine being a pilot and having to face the reality that my job was to get back into the cockpit of a jet and fly the next day. When we checked into our hotel, I boldly approached each one of them and thanked them for their bravery. They were being called to do one of the most unthinkable jobs on the planet. And they went anyway.

As my daughter and I traveled back to the West coast four days later through three different airports, flight attendants and pilots somberly passed us, their rolling bags trailing behind them, faces set like flint. Again I said ‘thank you’ as often as I could; some of the flight attendants also got a hug.
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The country is reeling again from another tragedy, outraged at the carnage and loss of life at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. Many have taken their outrage and channeled it to finding a cause or pointing a finger—more gun control, revamping FBI practices, engaging in more stringent oversight of those mentally ill—each a just and worthwhile issue.
I am not going to argue the wisdom of those efforts, nor am I ignoring the energy and passion of the survivors at Marjory Stoneman who are marching next month. Everyone has a right to use their voice where and how they can.
For my small part, I sat down yesterday and did what writers do: I wrote a letter to my oldest grandson’s high school teacher. In it, I suggested a practice of checking in with students every Friday for a few minutes at the end of the day to see how they are doing. Not verbally, but via paper. (Glennon Doyle Melton recounted the idea via her article at rd dot com and I borrowed it from her.)
High school staff and teachers are the people on the front lines every day from New York to California, Montana to Florida and everywhere in between, who have to go back to work in their buildings after a richly deserved day off and face their jobs again.
They will show up and keep showing up and caring for kids and pouring out their lives day after day in classrooms all over America.
If you know a kid in high school, if you HAVE a kid in high school, if you know a High School teacher, can you take 10-15 minutes to write a note to that principal or teacher? Something like,
“Thank you for facing your job each day under unthinkable circumstances, for doing the difficult job of caring for kids,” or just plain, “thank you.” You can read my letter here and adapt it for your own. 
Or heck, print out this excerpt below (from Glennon Doyle, re: her son’s 5th grade teacher) and pass it along to the teacher or principal. You never know, it might save someone’s life. Or many someone’s lives before more children are lost to loneliness, emptiness and despair.
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“Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.
And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
Who can’t think of anyone to request?
Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.
As a teacher, parent, and lover of all children, I think this is the most brilliant Love Ninja strategy I have ever encountered. It’s like taking an X-ray of a classroom to see beneath the surface of things and into the hearts of students. It is like mining for gold—the gold being those children who need a little help, who need adults to step in and teach them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts. And it’s a bully deterrent because every teacher knows that bullying usually happens outside her eyeshot and that often kids being bullied are too intimidated to share. But, as she said, the truth comes out on those safe, private, little sheets of paper.
As Chase’s teacher explained this simple, ingenious idea, I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. “How long have you been using this system?” I said.
Ever since Columbine, she said. Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine. Good Lord.
This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. Who are our next mass shooters and how do we stop them? She watched that tragedy knowing that children who aren’t being noticed may eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.
And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often in the world within her reach. What Chase’s teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11-year-old hands is saving lives. I am convinced of it.” (read the entire essay here.)

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Build a bridge, be a connection, stand in the gap. Fill the gaps with love, and maybe a letter. 

The Body of Memories-September 11th

I met a friend recently for lunch at a park near my home, desperate for her company and encouragement. Nerves were frayed, emotions out of whack, reserve tanks anything but reserved.

I apologized in advance for my undone condition. As I attempted to articulate my very frail feelings, blaming my 4 am wake-up call after a night of worrying about my new book, her simple response was, “You’re exhausted, Jody. No wonder you’re on the brink of tears.”

“Plus, it’s almost September 11th.”

Until she voiced the obvious, I wasn’t aware that, too, was weighing on my mind. Our bodies have memory and you’re remembering that day.

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In September of 2001, my daughter and I celebrated her graduation from culinary school with a trip to New York City. We’d arranged a 10-day visit with my nephew who lived in Brooklyn and also a meeting with Ruth Reichl, then Editor of Gourmet Magazine and author of 3 of our favorite books on cooking. The first five days in and around the city were glorious. A drive to the beach and back, subway-riding to Manhattan and the New York Public Library. Strolling through Central Park and jaunts all around Brooklyn. On the evening of September 10th, we met my nephew after work for drinks at a restaurant high atop the Marriott Hotel.

 A tremendous thunderstorm came through that night. We watched in awe from our cloud-high window seats at the lightning strikes, rain storming down in buckets. When we ventured back to the street, we found the air charged with heat and pressed on through the rain. Although we got soaked, we dried out on the subway ride home. (I wrote about the kindness of the people we met that night in this poem.) 
The next morning was the day of our appointment with Ruth back in Midtown at 30 Rockefeller Center.  I remember the voicemail from her assistant,  ‘See you at 11 on the 11th.’

The morning broke with a crystal clear blue sky, scrubbed clean from the previous nights’ storm. And then the earth moved, the sky filled with ashes and paper glitter and we were forever changed.

When Disaster Strikes

IMG_20200621_191351Psalm 29-A Psalm of David.

‘Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

* * * *

Every year on August 29th I remember that day in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury on the city of New Orleans. In my hit and miss practice of reading a Psalm a day I thought it was interesting, in an “only-God-could-do-this” kind of way that verse 10 above says, “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;”

We have life long friends who live in New Orleans — pastors Frank and Parris Bailey–who were displaced for more than two weeks when the waters rose. And rose. And rose.

Several days passed before we knew where they were and whether they were safe. By the time I finally I heard from Parris via a message on my phone, I wept for joy. I kept that voicemail for several weeks. When my husband and I visited four years later and drove around New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, the devastation of what too much water can do really sank in. Witnessing the blank slates and empty lots of neighborhoods, the decimated vegetation in City Park, the destruction of so much history, brought things into very painful focus.

It seemed chillingly appropriate when I turned to the 29th Psalm that day as I did once again this morning, only this time with the unprecedented power and destruction of Hurricane Harvey in mind.

I don’t like August 29th. I’m guessing my dear friend doesn’t, either, as Hurricane Harvey is dumping on their precious city again.

I do not mean to diminish the loss, the grief, the displacement, any of it, that Texans are facing. It’s incomprehensible. But the scars are still there for my friends and thousands more like her who had to rebuild and took several years to do so. New Orleans actually “never came back,” as the locals will tell you.

There are losses in Texas that will never be recovered. Homes, loved ones, keepsakes, places of family and friends lost forever that will carry deep, deep scars. For nothing carries scars like the land.

May God give us the wisdom and grace to serve those around us, near and far, touched by natural disasters and life disasters of every kind. Those that threaten to rush in like a flood and drown the unsuspecting. May we pray at all times and in every season to be ready to help in time of need when the waters rise.

Dear God, help us bring the arks that are needed for deliverance in your time. Keep us above the waters that threaten to drown us. And when we need a lifeboat, send one our way. Amen.

On Beauty, Books & A Birthday-A Photo Essay

No matter where I live, I recognize the song of a red-winged blackbird. In rushes near the shore’s edge of a California beach, along the canals and waterways in the San Joaquin Valley, the tall grasses along a Louisiana bayou or deep in marshes along Washington’s coast, the voice of the songbird is the same. There’s a trilling like no other, punctuated by startled flight and appearance of dark black wings dotted with a circle of scarlet. Once you hear the voice of red-winged blackbird, you will know it anywhere.

When I first began this blog, I was introduced to a writer whose work became a song of a different kind, with words that sang and soared right off the page. My friend and I have swooned over this writer’s work for several years now. We compare notes about the ways in which she speaks to the depths of our souls, the longing we share for rich literature, the tapestry of language that weaves the glory of God’s kingdom into a piece.

I recall sitting in my living room last year reading one of Lanier Ivester’s essays, “Songless.” I had a printout in my hand and the piece featured the color print of a red-winged blackbird. When I finished, I sat for a few moments in silence; I was literally struck speechless with the way the words were woven together.

I can either do one of two things when I encounter writing that is lightyears beyond mine (don’t we all have a different measure of what “better than I can do” looks like?) I can either throw down my pencil or close my laptop and give up. Or, I can drink from the rich deposit in my soul, be inspired to go on in my own work, and keep looking for beauty, order, design, clarity, whatever facets of God’s creativity I’ve been given to show to the world.

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I’m turning sixty five this week. It’s a daunting milestone and one that is bittersweet; I’ve officially lived ten years longer than my mother. Cancer took her at 55 when I was in the throes of raising two children who now have children of their own; I miss her a great deal. Turning 65 also prompts its own kind of contemplation—what is my contribution to the world? Have I achieved my dream(s)? What legacy am I leaving? Is it too late to make a difference?

I set out at the beginning of this year to write a book about the season of Christmas. When I discovered that Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first Little House book at the age of 65, I was greatly heartened. So, for my birthday, I’m giving the world a book. Sort of. Living the Season Well-Reclaiming Christmas won’t be released until the end of October some two months or so away, but it will still be in The Year I Turned Sixty-Five.  

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Besides birds and a book and a birthday I’ve also been contemplating the stunning beauty of blown glass. My sister visited recently and we wandered through the Chihuly Glass Garden in Seattle. Chihuly’s work is housed inside in quiet, cavernous rooms and outside in wide open, bright spaces.

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The glass sculptures that took my breath away were those inside, where uplighting pierced through each installation and shone through the dark in glittering rainbows.

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We were spellbound. “How does someone even dream up these ideas? Where does this kind of creativity come from? I could never do that.”

No, I can’t. But I can visually absorb the power of each piece, the scale, the variety, the brilliance. I can let it soak in just a little bit then take it as fuel for inspiration. What kind of creativity can I bring to the world? What’s in my hand? What’s in my heart? What’s in my head?

In 1699 Jean Haudicquer de Blancourt wrote a book about glass blowing which uses ashes, not sand. (I have no idea how old he was.) “The art of glass: showing how to make all sorts of glass, crystal, & enamel” details in great length the way to transform beauty from the ashes of hearths and homes across de Blancourt’s native France. People looked beyond what they saw in their chimneys and someone figured out a way to melt it into glass. Glass which provided people with a way to see.

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I began this post telling of a writer whose work is a tremendous inspiration to me, someone who finds beauty in ordinary things like gathering color from her garden or sharing a cup of tea. In a tragedy that defies all that makes sense, this beauty-bringer recently experienced the loss of her 100 year old farmhouse when it burnt nearly to the ground. She and her husband were left with ashes.

In the shock and trauma that have followed since then, the community of writers whom she calls friends have rallied around her–not by sending cash or showing up to help rebuild. No, many of us sent a gift for her soul—lovely china tea cups, plates and saucers for daily use. While time perhaps does not allow for the ‘taking of tea’ in this season, and indeed might seem a preposterous undertaking given the weight of the tragedy she’s endured, Lanier believes that beauty matters. The pattern on L’s new tea set? The Phoenix.

It is good for us to stop and enjoy the weight of God’s glory that shines in the sway of flowers in our garden, the glance of sunlight on the water or birdsong out our windows. We also can live as purveyors of goodness and beauty, shining our own gifts through the ‘glass’ God gives us.

Can you draw or paint? Write a song, play a tune or dance?

Have you a pen in your hands you can yield to God as you write through your pain?

Is speaking your gift?

Bring beauty from your ashes, write the words, fashion a glass and help us see. 

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Lanier’s post “Songless” is here.

 

Nouns-Some Thoughts on People, Places & Things

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“…you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink

but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone

but on tablets of human hearts.”     II Corinthians 3:3

Last week I traveled to Southern California, the land where I grew up and lived until I married.  Five days of returning and rejuvenating was definitely good for my soul. Although I often visit there each summer to see my sisters—usually in August–this was my first trip in the month of May. (There are some definite perks to being a retired teacher). I knew the area had seen more rain than ever this year so I was looking forward to green hillsides, rich tropical flowers and blooms of the jacaranda trees.

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I was especially looking forward to eating fresh California strawberries.

As soon as I hopped into my rental car I headed down the freeway to one of the last remaining strawberry farms in the So Cal beach area. The bright colors of fresh produce were a balm to my eyes, if there is such a thing, and the aroma of fresh strawberries jogged a place deep in my memory.20170501_121438

After selecting three baskets of ruby red fruit, one of the farm’s owners and I chatted about changes we’ve seen in the last twenty-five years. The near disappearance of strawberry fields which dotted varying plots of land throughout Orange County, including several acres across the street from Disneyland. Also gone were hundreds of acres of orange orchards; the fragrant smell of orange blossoms on the evening breeze a thing of the past. No more open spaces, just tracts and tracts of homes on the hillsides, crowded beaches and ten-lane (!!) freeways. Yes, the land of my birth had changed drastically.

I was surprised to see signs between the airport and the ocean announcing “Tourist Information Ahead.” The place where our humble (poor) family lived all my growing up years was now a tourist destination. I wondered if there were maps for the movies stars’ houses (or maybe mine?)