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God’s Presence in Suffering

God’s Presence in Suffering

By Natasha Layman 

The call came on a rainy, chilly afternoon when I was preparing for oral surgery the following day. A woman who had mothered me as a young adult and continued to love me generously and steadfastly collapsed suddenly and was on life support. I took a deep breath and turned my attention to Jesus, placing myself in his loving presence. Another phone call came a few hours later. She had passed away. In this loss, I experienced as I never have before the safe, strong, and deep tender love of God as he held me close and invited me to run to him and feel. God invites us to experience his presence tenderly and powerfully in our suffering, grief, and loss. 

This was not my first experience losing a loved one. My dad passed away in my mid-twenties after a short-lived battle with cancer. I was there when he died, feeling the last pulse that went through his body. My relationship with my dad was tenuous at best, and I had no framework for how to sit with a mixed bag of emotions and grieve the losses. I detached and dissociated because that is what I knew, and it felt safer than sitting in the grief. I frequently asked God, “Why?” Why did my dad die? Why did we have such a distant and rocky relationship? I felt alone, angry, and bitter toward God as I tried to make sense of my suffering. A friend graciously recommended a counselor who listened and taught me how to engage with my feelings, my history with my dad, and all the wounds that were part of that story. But something was missing in this process. 

Fast forward a decade and a half to the moment I learned of my friend’s death. How was this time so different? How did I experience God’s presence and comfort in my suffering now? Because of my relationship with my dad, I’d envisioned God as distant, uninviting, and rather cold. I invite you into my past year’s journey, as God has rooted out my flawed views of him to form a deeper, more beautiful relationship between us.  

About a year ago, after years of longing to experience God, and not simply more head knowledge or good theology, I started leaning into habits to create space to meet God. I began sitting on my couch each morning for 5–10 minutes and imagining God sitting next to me, his face lighting up with joy at me. This was hard work—I was easily distracted, my mind prone to wandering. Yet God met me there, gently bringing me back to his presence when I wandered. He began to lay a foundation of joy, delight, and trust. In my daily prayer time, I experienced God’s presence. God fully knows me, my limitations, my wounds, and wholly loves me. In this time, God brought healing to deep wounds as well as freedom, laying the groundwork for deeper trust in him. 

As I prayed during the weeks leading up to my friend’s death, God brought me from a beautiful image in prayer of a safe, secure garden, walking with him, resting with him, and knowing his loving arms that held me, to an image of Jesus inviting me to follow him into the wilderness. The wilderness? When this shift happened I didn’t know what the wilderness held, but I knew God was trustworthy, and I could follow him. Days before my friend died, while in prayer, God gave me an image. I was scared and weeping on the side of a trail, with Jesus sitting next to me, arms around me, comforting me. He comforted me with his presence, not words. This image was at the forefront of my mind the day the call came that my friend had collapsed. God’s immediate invitation was to come, lament, and grieve with him

My journey of grief and lament began immediately. I wept tears that felt like they would never stop. The following day, I sat with God in prayer through the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. The verse that the Holy Spirit highlighted for me was verse 4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus was gently telling me that he didn’t say we will not mourn, but we will be comforted. I wept more, with the image of Jesus weeping with me. I grieved that there would be no more hugs from my friend, no more sitting with her and hearing her stories. Most of the time I spent lamenting and grieving, there weren’t words, simply God’s presence; the intimacy of being fully loved by the God who knew my human experiences and limitations and loved me just the same. Jesus didn’t distance himself from me but held me in my woundedness with his scarred hands. The same hands that knew the pain of death were tending me, holding me with gentleness. 

God invited me to sit and lament with him several times in the week and a half following my friend’s death. I knew healing, wholeness, and knowing Jesus more deeply would only flow from continuing to come when he invited me, even when it was hard. In a podcast I heard author Tish Harrison Warren describe a concept from St. Thomas Aquinas as an “arduous good”. The word arduous means requiring great exertion; laborious; difficult. Lament is an arduous good. Lament requires that we be present to our pain and be present to God. Like so much else that God calls us to, lament is a process

My grief over my friend’s death will not disappear this side of eternity. Every room of my house has reminders, large or small, of her influence on my life. Yet, as Curt Thompson so wisely said during his time at Christ Community, “We discover joy finds us in suffering because community is sitting with us in the midst of it.” That journey starts by being present with the community of the Holy Trinity in my suffering and in Christ’s body, the Church. 

As I grieve, I have the hope that Jesus will return and set to right all that sin has broken. But there is a more pressing hope for this life right now. Our loving Lord Jesus, whose face lights up with joy and delight at us, is also sitting next to us, arms around us, holding us in all the storms of our suffering, grief, and loss. He invites us to grieve with him, just as he did with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus—death is not how it ought to be. He will not leave us in our suffering because he is “Love Loving,” in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He is inviting us to come to him and abide, even in our sorrows. 

Before my friend died, as I was processing the news of her collapse, I was interrupted by an image. My friend was running with joy and delight into the arms of her Savior. She no longer bore the frailties of her body in this life but was whole, healed, and at peace. The wounded hands of Jesus held her as a beloved daughter. We are his beloved, and he is inviting you and me to experience his presence in our suffering. 

 

Additional Resource:

Comer, John Mark, host. “Luminary Interview: Tish Harrison Warren.:” The Rule of Life Podcast, Sabbath season, episode 5, Practicing the Way, 2022. 

Comer, John Mark. Practicing the Way. Waterbrook, 2024, 

 

But What About…?

But What About…?

Have you ever looked at the Christian faith and wondered, “But what about…”? We all wrestle with difficult life questions. How does Jesus respond to our “what abouts?”

In this podcast Bill Gorman is joined by Ben Beasley, interim campus pastor at the Leawood Campus. They explore the upcoming sermon series “But what about…?”, which addresses tough questions head-on. Bill and Ben discuss their own difficult questions, emphasizing the importance of patience, charity, and epistemological humility in working through doubts and questions. They also share their hopes for the series, which includes guiding listeners toward a humble confidence in their faith and a healthy model for addressing tensions.

Join us as we dive into this thought-provoking sermon series with an aim to know Jesus more and be his hands and feet in our community and world.

Afflicted, But Not Crushed

Afflicted, But Not Crushed

I am weak and weary. In the last two months, we almost had a house fire, sickness, grief on both sides of extended family, weird medical issues, multiple unexpected bills, no AC during the May heatwave…I think that’s the complete list! The last two months have been rough. Well, the last 13 months have been rough. Okay, actually the last two years and three months have been rough.

I know I’m not alone in feeling that it’s been a tough season. This is a theme for many of us. Since COVID turned the world upside down, anything else on top of that feels heavier. Then there’s the awful turmoil in the world, the shootings, the accidents, and the unending heartaches that remind us that our world is broken.

We will have troubles in this world, and Jesus himself reminds us of that truth in John 16:33. As followers of Christ we are not promised protection from loss, death, or crushed dreams. We will feel sadness and grief. We will feel the weight of the unknowns. We look forward to heaven when everything sad will come untrue and pray with great desire “Come, Lord Jesus.”

But what about today when the weight of it all is so very heavy?

2 Corinthians 4:7-10 offers beautiful hope for us when we feel like we have nothing left. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

There are many pieces of good news here! Let’s break it down:

1) The treasure is Jesus and his power, not me or my abilities. Imagine a clay jar with a little candle inside. Put the lid on, and that light is dimmed. Now imagine there is a crack in that clay jar. Even when you put the lid on, the light shines brightly through that crack. That is me … an imperfect, broken clay jar. It is his power that does anything good in me and through me, not because of anything I do. When I am at my weakest, his power shines through the broken vessel that I am.

2) We are afflicted, perplexed (oh my goodness, yes), persecuted, struck down … but NOT crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed. Wow! I am so much more hopeful when I live in the tension that we will have hardships, but it won’t take all from us. What is our all? Well, that leads to another point in this little passage.

3) We carry with us the death of Jesus, SO THAT the life of Jesus may also be manifested in us! Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is our hope in life and death. Every day we can live as free sons and daughters because of what he did for us, and absolutely no one can take that away. And WE are doing this together! As a family of believers, we come alongside and cheer one another on to live for Christ. We support one another when life is joyous and when life is rough. We are the body of Christ and we carry these burdens together (Galatians 6:2).

How do we get rooted (and stay rooted) in Christ? First, we cling to Jesus. Read the Bible (ask a pastor or community group leader how to do this!) and pray daily. Second, say yes to being part of a community of believers. Do this by committing to going to church weekly and get into a Bible study or community group. No one is meant to follow Christ alone!

My last suggestion is one that I learned from my sweet Grandpa. Pray that the Lord would give you a verse or a song in your heart each day. Especially in moments when we are weak we need to repeat truths to ourselves. Pray back the Scripture to the Lord or sing the song to him. Proclaim it! Some excellent verses to start with are Psalm 62:5-6, 1 Corinthians 15:58, and Romans 8:28-29, and, of course, 2 Corinthians 4:7-10. Keep the verse close by writing it on an index card and keep it in your back pocket throughout the day. And some favorite hymns are “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” and “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”

This world will try to take our joy and our hope, and it will if we are not rooted in Christ and allow him to be our only hope. So, my dear brothers and sisters, let’s give our weak and tired selves to the One who offers life, and allow his light to shine through. Without him we will be crushed. With him, we have hope!

Life Up in Smoke

Life Up in Smoke

“I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” 


I have found myself returning often to this quote by actor Jim Carrey. It’s one of those sentiments that is really easy to nod along to, but hard for most of us “normal” people to believe. 

If you are like me, you would not say this aloud to anyone, even yourself. But there is something you want from life that you are sure, if you had it, would be the answer: more money, more time, good health, more confidence, better friends, less depression, prettier looks, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, that promotion, this car…on and on that list could go. But if the story of our lives were a simple fill in the blank, we probably all know how we would complete the sentence: “If I only had _______, then I would finally be happy.”

But paradoxically, many of those who have been lucky enough to achieve their dreams like Jim Carrey, look back to the rest of us and shake their heads. It didn’t work. They are just as broken, insecure, and unhappy as they have ever been, and in some cases, even more so.    

Carrey isn’t the first person to make this observation. In fact, thousands of years ago, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote the now famous words about the human pursuit of happiness: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” He knew it didn’t work, either. 

Whether we put our hope in wealth, pleasure, youth, workplace success, or even things like human justice and vindication, Ecclesiastes forces us to acknowledge, again and again, that we will ultimately be let down. At some point, we will find our lives up in smoke with no answers and nowhere to turn. And even if along the way we get the life we always wanted, we will find it wasn’t enough. 

But hidden in this bracing book, there is something, if we are open to it, that can lead to real satisfaction on the other side of our disappointments. We hope you will join us this spring as we start our sermon series on this amazing book of Ecclesiastes. It won’t always be easy, but there is wisdom on the other side. See you Sunday! 

Chronic Illness and the Good News

Chronic Illness and the Good News

We were having coffee, just catching up. I asked politely about work, about summer schedules, just small talk. Then I asked about family. His whole demeanor changed. The smile faded. The shoulders dropped. The eyes shifted. He told me, “You know, my wife has chronic headaches. Migraines. Sometimes, she can’t get out of bed. It means that every day, we don’t know what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot see, what we can and cannot enjoy. It is very difficult and lonely for her.” 

“That sounds really hard,” is what I say back. We kept talking about other things. 

Years later, I am sitting in a doctor’s office. An ENT actually. He’s great. Friendly. Competent. He’s telling me that the symptoms I am experiencing are part of a larger phenomenon known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL – because who wants to spell that ever again?): an unexplained but rapid hearing loss in one ear, accompanied by tinnitus (ringing), bouts of vertigo, and a constant sense of “fullness” or congestion. None of the symptoms, mind you, actually mean anything. They all represent the brain’s stubborn attempt to re-establish a connection with the nerve of the inner ear, which is (likely) permanently damaged. It’s a futile attempt to fix something that is fundamentally unfixable. 

How did it happen? I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know. We never will.  

Anyway, I’m sitting there, realizing that from this moment on, my experience of life will never be the same. And all I can think about is that guy, over coffee, trying to tell me something about his wife and how hard her life is. I do a lot of coffees, a lot of sharing, a lot of listening. I’m a pastor, after all. And I know a lot of people with chronic illness, just stuff that will never go away. I’ve talked to them, held their hands, read them Scripture, prayed over them. But until this moment, I didn’t understand them. What it feels like to know, deep down, there are no next steps, no more doctors, no more meds, no more plans. There’s just a broken body, and the ways you learn to live around it. 

I haven’t shared this with many people. I wasn’t ready. I don’t want this to be a long, drawn out thing about my health. I was listening to someone recently talk about their own chronic illness, and he said, “One of the hardest things about it is that I’m offended when people don’t ask how I am doing, but then I’m exhausted when they do ask how I am doing.” I loved that. It’s so true. I don’t want this blog to be about how I’m doing (I’m really ok). But I’d love to share what I am learning. So here goes…

I need daily bread. During this time with my health, I have learned that some days I can do whatever I want, and some days I just can’t. I have no control over it. My plans are very much plans for the day. I know now more than ever the reason Jesus teaches us to ask for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Not weekly bread. Not monthly. Not quarterly. Not annually. Just daily. Upon further reflection, I think too much of my energy in life has been looking ahead to some hypothetical future, or mulling over some unchangeable past, instead of living the day right in front of me. Now, I find myself concentrating more and more on this idea, to live the day God gave me. There is a design element here: God indeed made us to plan as well for the future as we are able, but more importantly, He made us to live and obey and depend on Him today. When you really begin to pay attention, this idea is all over the Bible. Hebrews 3:12-13 comes to mind: 

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

My body failing me is difficult, but it also throttles my attention from drifting too far ahead or behind. What can I do today? What does faithfulness look like right now? I need daily bread, and Jesus is happy to give it to me when I ask. I’m asking now more than ever. 

This body is not my home. It’s one thing to feel out of place in the world. It’s another to feel – even just a little – out of place in your body. To feel that your own body is an obstacle to who you want to be and what you want to do. This, by the way, is a feeling we will all experience at one point or another. If illness doesn’t get us, age will. My fellow chronic-illness folks and I are just practicing a little early. 

I hate to admit this, but for most of my 20s and 30s, Paul’s teaching on the new body has been for me a fascinating abstraction. Chronic illness has cured me of that. When I turn to, say, 1 Corinthians 15, rather than reading for mere comprehension, I read for hope. I read for reminders and promises. Promises that reshape my reality. Promises like “what is sown perishable will indeed be raised imperishable”, and that a glory awaits me that I can hardly fathom, just as I cannot fathom the beauty of a rose by merely studying it’s seed. 

I no longer just believe this is true. I need to believe this is true. And there’s a sense in which the culmination of our faith only happens when we don’t just think it; we feel it. 

I feel now, in a way I didn’t before, that while this broken body is a gift, it is also a problem. It has limits, weaknesses, short-comings, and liabilities that I was not designed to carry. But God is not surprised by this, and He gave me good news about it before I knew I needed it. If that is true, if my broken body is not an obstacle to His love and care, then I can trust Him with what comes next. I can trust Him with tomorrow. And so can you. 

Can You Celebrate Easter Without Lent?

Can You Celebrate Easter Without Lent?

Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday, culminating with our celebration of the Greatest Day, the day death died and hope triumphed, our Resurrection Sunday.

I didn’t grow up in a tradition that thought much about Lent, but in seminary I discovered that Lent is a path walked by countless Christians for centuries, to prepare themselves for the joys of Easter. It is a season of reflection, confession, and anticipation, as we enter the sufferings of Christ.

Can I celebrate Easter without Lent?

But Lent seems like a lot of work! Is it really necessary? Why can’t I just celebrate the resurrection? Why take this longer, more arduous path when I know that, either way, Easter is coming?

That’s a fair question, and that option is certainly available. But I think of engaging in Lent a bit like one of my favorite hikes from this past year.

Alaska and Lent

Our family was in Juneau, Alaska, and we wanted to do the same thing the majority of visitors do when they’re in Juneau—visit Mendenhall Glacier.

When most people visit this massive glacier, they do so by taking a tour bus to the visitor center on the east side of the glacier, go for a short walk on a paved path, and then fight through the crowds for a quick selfie with this spectacular ice—all from nearly a mile away.

But I thought to myself, “Not good enough! I didn’t come all the way to Alaska to stare at this thing from 4,800 feet away on an over-crowded sidewalk! I could have just stayed home and googled it. No! I want to touch it! Smell it. I want to feel the cold breeze blowing off it. I want it to drip on me, and I want to taste the water of this ancient snow.

In essence, I wanted to experience that glacier as intensely and completely as humanly possible.

So much work

But it wasn’t going to be easy. After a ton of research (and convincing my family: “trust me, this way will be better”), we took a taxi to the opposite side of the glacier, a place with almost no tourists. Because of its increased isolation, we had to convince the taxi driver to return later to pick us up. And all we could see when we arrived was one tiny glimpse of the glacier from an even farther distance. Just a bunch of trees, a narrow, poorly-marked trail, and the potential for bears. Did we just make a huge mistake?

It was too late for those thoughts, so off we went! We are fairly experienced hikers, but it was a difficult seven-mile round trip. Three out of four of us fell and got hurt. There were places where we lost the trail, spots we trudged through the mud, and other areas the brush was so thick we could only barely squeeze through. We had to scramble up steep and dangerous cliffs and gain about 1,200 feet in total elevation. We were hungry, tired, and becoming more ticked at each other with every seemingly pointless step.

And we still hadn’t really even seen it! I’m pretty sure our kids, ages 9 and 11, were contemplating emancipation. I could see from Kelly’s face that she was questioning her life choices. Even I was beginning to feel more than a bit of regret. Stupid hike! We could have taken the bus, clicked our selfie, and been done with it by now!

Then we saw it

And then we got above the cliff, and instantly, we forgot about all the work. Oh. I’d never seen anything like it.

I had never even imagined ice so blue or so massive or so gorgeous. It literally took our breath away (of course, we may have still been winded from scaling the rocks). It was still about a half-mile away, but we could FEEL the ice in the air and had to put on our coats.

Our pace slowed as we soaked it in. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, each of them a failure to capture it. Closer and closer we inched, in awe of the beauty God invented.

We walked beside it. We walked on top of it. Eventually, we found an ice cave and walked under it. We felt it and tasted it. We lingered. We explored. We played. We couldn’t leave, for our hearts were overwhelmed, and we will never forget it.

And we could have missed it! Sure, the other way would have been so much easier, but this path? Not only were we able to get closer to it, but the work to get there actually heightened our joy. The anticipation (and sometimes doubt) of what was ahead, the pain and even continual questioning if we’d made the right choice, and the exhaustion of the experience actually made it better when we got there. The work became our delight.

Lent and Easter

And similarly, we can try to celebrate the resurrection without feeling the weight of the cross, we can try to rejoice in our forgiveness without reflecting on our brokenness and sin, we can try to delight in the hope of life without carrying the burden of suffering. You can absolutely celebrate Easter without Lent. But, you will rob yourself of a greater joy.

For it is in the arduous path of Lent that we get to stand in the presence of our Resurrected King. Not merely from a distance, as if we were a bunch of selfie-stick-carrying, religious tourists, but up close and personal. Through our increased engagement with the disciplines, such as Bible reading, prayer, reflection, solitude, confession, fasting, worship, community, etc., we get to experience our God not just from far off, but all around us. And the work will be worth it.

Our hike toward Easter

We invite you to take this hike with us. The trail began this week on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.

Along the path, you might consider giving up something for a season to participate even a tiny bit in Christ’s sufferings and to create space in your life for these kinds of disciplines. Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Some Christians might give up meat or dessert, Netflix or shopping or social media. We give these up not because we have to, but as way to heighten our joy when we get there.

Each day on this journey of Lent, we encourage you to take additional time for focused meditation on God’s Word and reflection on our need for a Savior. Think about your sin, turn from it, and remember what it took for God to save you from it. We don’t do these things to earn favor from God or make Him like us more, but simply to create space in our lives for Him to do His greatest work.

To help us each day, we’re also recommending an incredible online devotional from 2019 that the Center of Christianity, Culture, and the Arts of Biola University posted. Each devotional (from Ash Wednesday through Easter) includes Scripture, poetry, art, music, and a written reflection. Take a look at their website, and sign up to have them email you these brief readings each day through Lent.

If you haven’t signed up already, now is a good time to join us on theFormed.life. This resource is a great foundation for daily study, focusing on spiritual disciplines and habits. During the four weeks leading up to Easter, theFormed.life will be focused on discussing elements of Holy Week.

With each step along the way, our anticipation builds.

And what’s our destination? My favorite church services of the entire year! Our Good Friday services at all of our campuses are a powerful time to enter the story of Jesus’ death. And then, of course, Easter Sunday, when we get to celebrate afresh that sin has been vanquished, suffering and evil has met its match, and death will be no more!

Yes, you can enjoy Easter without Lent, just as we could have glimpsed Mendenhall Glacier without that painful hike. But why would you? Greater joy is being offered. So which way will you go?

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Originally published February 20, 2019

2019 ONLINE LENTEN DEVOTIONAL FROM BIOLA UNIVERSITY