In Defense of Pity Parties

Blessed.  That was the sticker on the car I read as it passed me.  It is not the first time I had seen someone with a sticker stating this.  It has always bothered me I think because most of the time these are placed on really nice cars, usually one I cannot afford.  On this day, it struck me as particularly bothersome.  You see, my son recently made a statement that really hit me hard, he said, “Nothing good ever happens to our family.”

As much as I wanted to argue the point, in truth, I could not.  Both my kids are in the valley of suck too. I lost my wife and my kids lost their mom. I don't know what that is like but I know it sucks.  And you know, a lot of days I agree with him and this was one of those days.  Do good things happen to our family?  Sure and a lot of times, I would start out giving him a list of things but on this day it was too much.

It was a pity party kind of day.  It was a day in the valley of suck and my son named it.  But I cannot help think about what our problem is with naming moments in life for what they are?  I do not mean just society, I mean Christians too: what is our deal?  Can we really not be honest with the reality our lives can be excruciatingly hard?  That some days, the valley of suck really sucks?  How about just naming a bad day for what it is and throwing a pity party?  

I am standing up today in defense of pity parties.

It bothers me to think our Christian faith is measured in what we have or do not have.  If you’re spending any time in the Lectionary readings of recent weeks that come from Luke’s gospel, then you’ll see Jesus has a real issue with measuring or relying on material wealth as a sign of being right with God or being blessed.  

Very telling is this week’s reading is from Luke 16:19-31 and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  As I read multiple commentaries, I am amazed, going back even to Martin Luther, the focus seems to be still on what the parable says about heaven and hell.  But the context has NOTHING to do with that!  A quick glance at the context in Luke 16:14 says clearly this parable has to do with coveting and trusting in riches for our hope. The engineering of heaven and hell isn't the main point.

Our passion for positivity runs so deep it seems to me people now even struggle to live with the simple empathy which Paul challenges the Roman Christians to emulate when he says,
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.“ (Romans 12:15-16 ESV)

The writers of the wisdom of the Old Testament seem to have had little issues with expressing their pain and having pity parties regularly before God. “Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me! (Psalms 142:6 ESV)” is just one of the many cries.  This does not include the writings of the prophets which share the trials and difficulties of those who sought after God and proclaimed God’s message relentlessly and knew pain and suffering intimately.  

Do all good gifts come from God?  Scripture declares it so (James 1:17) but Jesus says that so too does the rain fall on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:44-46)

Blessed you say?  Why?  Because of wealth that God has given you?  In light of the varying statements of Scripture text that seemingly contradict one another, maybe the Spirit is pointing to a more profound truth - a middle way (which is often maligned these days from every side)?

It seems to me a more Christian response might be to have a sticker which says “Content.” Maybe that is just not good marketing though? At issue is that we find this idea throughout Scripture too: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. (Philippians 4:11; see also 1 Timothy 6:8 and Hebrews 13:5)).”  Go look it up if you must but I find it means exactly what we think it does in the New Testament Greek.

I defend the pity party because we’ve defended for too long the idea of “Be Happy” theology as the way to discern God’s presence in our lives. That is, a theology that all God wants is us to be happy and well off and without worry to determine if it is God’s will.  I’d prefer a middle ground somewhere along the way but to do it, we need to make space for a Savior who, “...has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58).”  The Church and Christians need to come to grips with a God who became like us; not like the U.S.  We need to tailgate less and throw pity parties a bit more.  

I am not saying it is necessary to give up everything to follow Jesus but I can tell you it is in the realm of possibilities because he told someone else to do it (Luke 18:18-24).  We need a theology which makes room for pity parties alongside all our “blessing bashes.”  There needs to be room enough for those who grieve in the late hours of the night (Psalms 6:6) as there is for those who celebrate in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

So here is to you, all you who are throwing a pity party, go for it!  You may not have a crowd to fill an arena, just be sure to send me an invitation because Jesus will be there and where Jesus is, I want to be too.

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The Valley of Suck Makes a Great Runaway Truck Ramp

The experiences which I and my family have endured over the past few years, most notably, the death of my wife, Heather, have all acted as sort of a runaway truck ramp on a mountain road.  We regularly drive up into the mountains of north Georgia and North Carolina and drive past the giant “sand traps” built to stop a semi-truck.  I have never seen a truck use one but I can imagine it would be quite a sight. But what about in our lives? I think that this suffering, pain, and struggle, acts in many ways like the runaway truck ramp. I have been forced to a stop in my life; no longer am I able to just take off and go about doing things my own way. Sometimes, I am even forced onto a path I would never have taken if I could have seen the signs sooner.

Here, most recently, I have found myself forced to examine the faults of another.  This is never a place which I like to be but I have really had no choice.  This is no “straw-man” argument it is simply my being careful and it really doesn’t have to do with that person anyway.  It is the old adage, “If you point your finger at someone else there will be three fingers pointing at you.”

As has been my practice in recent weeks, I am being intentional about discerning God’s voice in prayer and fasting.  The tone of the week is often set by the breath prayer which I develop and this week was no different.  The prayer, “Holy God, let holiness and humility grow in equal proportion in me.”  At times, I’ve shortened it to: “Let holiness and humility grow in me.”

On their own, holiness and humility can lead to arrogance, in the case of holiness, and to shame, in the case of humility.  Together, they seem, in my estimation and study of scripture and tradition, to balance each other out.  As I have prayed though, I have felt the scale tip ever so slightly toward humility.  

How do you judge another, in the Christian tradition, without humility?  So much is being made of holiness, whether Scriptural or social, there seems little room for the topic of humility.  In the constant drumbeat for better trained leaders and CEO pastors, there seems little room for humility.  In the debates between Christian conservatives and liberals regarding the correct political candidate, there seems little room for humility.

In the ongoing clamor to determine who is right and who is wrong, I wonder if we have lost sight of who we are trying to be like in the first place?

The late Dr. Robert Mulholland, defined spiritual formation as “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.”  There are many ways this process plays out, as many as there are or have been people in the world.  And as I have been forced to make a judgement, I realize, I ought to consider what image am I conveying?  In whose image am I being conformed?

And those questions pointed me to one of the few verses my fragmented mind could recall.  It comes from the book of Hebrews 4:13-16, where the writer declares,
(13) And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.  (14)  Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  (15)  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  (16)  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (ESV)

What I hear in these verses is the gentle yet firm reminder, there is only one who is without sin.  In his commentary on Hebrews, Dr. Donald Guthrie reminds us too, “temptation in itself is not sinful (126).”  Tragically, the Biblical record and tradition of the Church (along with experience and reason), indicate “We all have sinned and fallen short…(Romans 3:23)”  In our judgements then, we ought to take into account our own state of our own soul.  

This does not mean I have to forgo the need I had to make a judgement.  It does mean I have to live with it and carry it.  If I am truly in the path of spiritual formation - “being conformed to the image of Christ…” then I had better make note, not just of my own righteousness/holiness unto the Lord, but am I reflecting the humility of Christ Jesus?

I readily admit, my answer to this is in the negative.  I am still upset and angry I was put in the position where I had to make a judgement.  But I also recognize the voice of God speaking in my life through prayer and fasting. I dare not become complacent and live in this self-righteous indignation but temper it with true humility.  For while one’s sin maybe on the outside, and my own on the inside, we have all fallen short of what God intends for us in Jesus Christ.  

The valley of suck - those experiences of pain and suffering that steal joy from our lives - has been a place where your knees get taken out.  The blessing in this is that to be on one’s knees is a symbolic posture of humility.  Maybe I’ll finally learn this is a better place to be if my goal is to be like Jesus.

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