In today’s world, with all it conflicting messages, it can be hard to know how to live our Christian faith, particularly when it involves loss. Here is what one man is discovering after experiencing multiple losses.
I was ecstatic. I got the call from my editor and heard that I was to be awarded my first full-length book contract. I took my wife and young daughter to dinner to celebrate at our favorite restaurant with steamed mussels, a stinky cheese tray, and tiramisu. We toasted the years of hard work to get to this point. We laughed and drank and on our way home I held my wife’s hand with a sense of joy and relief.
We left the restaurant in thriving downtown and drove a couple miles west to our renovated 100-year-old bungalow in Atlanta’s inner-city neighborhood where I served as a community-based church planter. We worshipped in a community center, engaged with arts and spiritual practice, and spearheaded a mentoring program with girls in the nearby middle school. We did this thanks to the support of a five-year denominational grant and a number of talented visionaries and passionate activists who partnered with us in the community (as well as a side career as a speaker and consultant helping other denominations do the same). It seemed our family had hit its stride, and the book was just the icing on the cake.
But if you were really perceptive you might have seen more in my eyes. Were you to look long and hard enough, past the smile and enthusiastic conversation about politics or indie bands or hipster bars, you might glimpse something more. You might have seen what John O’Donohue calls the interior landscape. You might have noticed a deep sadness, a suspicion that my inner critic was right: That I was the sum total of my mistakes. That I was not good enough. That I was not safe.
And so, it took no time at all for my celebrating heart to sink when the call came two weeks later from a woman with the bad news. Apparently the economic downturn had affected the denomination’s funding capacity and they no longer felt our church “would be a good fit.” Moreover, in the months to follow, several of the leading members of our new congregation were called elsewhere—to development work in West Africa, to graduate school in New York, to a break from it all.
That tender heart of mine, wishing that all my joy had been an affirmation of real worth, just fell to pieces in the face of pain. Hungry for something to hold on to, I dug in harder, trying to keep the whole thing from falling apart. I saw my faith and my mission as my home base. I saw my work as my entire identity. In what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr describes as “meritocracy,” I clung to the justice we could accomplish by staying in southwest Atlanta as irrefutable proof that God should be aligning the planets in my favor. Every day I worked harder and harder to get that favor. And yet every day it seemed the planets were being flung further and further apart.
One afternoon my wife and daughter were sitting on the porch of our bungalow. We lived on a corner lot along a side street and a busier thoroughfare. Suddenly they heard a screeching of tires. A kid, who couldn’t have been 14 years old, was behind the wheel of an Escalade, clearly stolen, tearing down the main street. It seemed he was trying to turn onto our block. At that speed, the SUV couldn’t make the turn. He jumped the sidewalk and within a split second had plowed my wife’s car into my car. He slammed the car into reverse and raced away, my daughter stunned, my wife screaming, “Stop, stop! Get out of the car! Come back here!”
The months to follow grew worse and worse. We began to explore ways out of the hole we’d dug ourselves into. But each scenario felt like a resignation from what I thought God was asking of me. I would work on writing my new book or travel to speak about our mission, and then come home and try to hold the church idea together, manage the mentoring program, and convince my wife that we had to stay. We’d have long conversations about things not working. The poor economy was not affecting just my income. The crash had come full circle and the home that we’d bought and rehabbed for $180,000 was appraised for $37,000!
Just when we thought we’d seen it all, an evening thunder storm loosened the 100-year-old water oak from its footing across the street, and it came crashing onto the van we’d purchased to replace my wife’s car.
I got the message.
But only half of it.
We would end up leaving Atlanta, and I would end up working in a much more conventional environment only to have a second employment crisis. I asked God, “Why all the pain? What does it take to be rescued from all this suffering?”
I’m not sure I can write this. My heart still races in the retelling, being in a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sort of scenario. But here’s what I can say: It turns out God doesn’t protect us from harm or make the planets align. If that were the case, how would we explain all those who weren’t saved from Nazi death camps, or the bombs on Nagasaki or modern Syria, or those bombed by unfixable illnesses like cancer or Alzheimer’s? Not only that, but we don’t work our way into the front of God’s line for favors—because, frankly, God is not there taking applications. God is in line with the thirsty, the imprisoned, the impoverished of spirit.
These are a lot of big statements, I know. But what I’m learning in loss is that I was the one measuring myself— not God. I was the one avoiding the pain, believing every experience had a “deeper meaning” or purpose. Meanwhile, after all the wagering and negotiating, what’s left is a God who is “in all and through all things”—the suffering lamb slain at the foundations of the world. There is nowhere that God is not. There is no loss that God does not participate in. God was within that woman telling me the hard news that our church would no longer receive vital grant money. God was within me feeling heartbroken and rejected. God was within the girls in our community whom I believed needed our mentoring program in order to experience liberation. God was within that boy in the stolen car.
As James Finley puts it, God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in all things.
It will probably take my entire lifetime to unpack Finley’s words.
As we approach Advent there is something that I hope you’ll hear. It may be good news. It may not. Our work, our successes, our gains and our losses are not signs of God’s approval or disapproval. They are the sacred places in which God is born.
The Hive: A Center for Contemplation, Art, and Action offers yoga, creative workshops, small group classes, and one-on-one coaching to develop the contemplative and mindful practices. Bronsink and The Hive also lead “mindful workplace” courses for businesses and nonprofits customized to either faith-based or secular settings. The Hive is located in the Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio.