When people find out that I am a Reformed pastor they are often shocked because I don’t fit the profile they typically associated with Reformed pastors. Often I find myself explaining that the Reformed tradition is broader and more diverse than the neo-Reformed most know. I have had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about the need to have a more influenctial presence online to show people the diversity of the Reformed tradition. So it is with great excitement that today I introduce you to Chuck DeGroat. Chuck has recently become a professor at the seminary I graduated from. In our brief interactions on Twitter and over the phone, we agree that it would be a lot more fun if we lived closer together as we share a lot of similar thoughts.
For the more formal introduction – Rev. Chuck DeGroat, Ph.D., is Assoc. Prof. of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, MI (www.westernsem.edu), and a Senior Fellow at Newbigin House of Studies San Francisco (www.newbiginhouse.org). Chuck is the author is Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places and the forthcoming Toughest People to Love: Loving and Leading the Difficult People in Your Life, Including You (Eerdmans, Spring 2014). He has navigated the wilderness journey with his wife of 20 years and two daughters. He blogs at The New Exodus (www.chuckdegroat.net) and tweets at @chuckdegroat.
Christianity has been reduced to a self-improvement project.
Think about it. In a culture of cosmetic surgery and popular self-help books, it’s natural to expect church to provide a quick-fix, image-management spirituality. Relevant sermons that “speak to my life.” Energetic songs that “help me feel more positive.” And don’t forget the coffee and donuts. Oh, and make sure it’s good coffee.
And so, when so-called “dark nights” come (as they always do), we’re faced with a crisis. How does this fit into my self-improvement spirituality? We ask ourselves if our pain might be a result of some sin in our life. We bargain with God – I’ll try to be more faithful. We battle depression and resentment because our friends and neighbors aren’t suffering as we are. We Christians often don’t know what to do with suffering. We don’t know how to be in suffering. We don’t know what to think in suffering.
I was teaching through the book of Philippians for a church Bible study some time ago when a participant exclaimed, “I’m so glad we’re studying the book of JOY! I need more joy in my life!” A bit irritated and feeling snarky, I responded, “Let’s begin with Chapter 1, then, where Paul wants to die!” She was clearly surprised. In my overview, I proceeded to tell the group that Paul was in jail and, indeed, would have preferred death, as he says in Ch. 1. I told them that the book is, in fact, about joy – but joy re-defined in and through a participation in Christ’s sufferings and death even today, as Paul summarizes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection by sharing in his sufferings and becoming one with him in his death.” Oh joy!
Or, as C.S. Lewis once said, “Joy is the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
Now, I don’t think St. Paul is trying to be a downer. No, he’s conveying the foolish and scandalous wisdom of the Gospel – that we participate in Christ’s life, that we’re transformed in and through the indwelling of our suffering God. Dark nights aren’t optional. They aren’t a punishment for sin. No, the dark night is the pathway, that wilderness way for those who long to enjoy union with Christ. Daniel Shrock writes, “Our experience of emptiness, incredible though it may sound, indicates the powerful work of God hidden deep within us. Our despair testifies to hope, and our dying prepares us for spiritual growth.”
The language of the “dark night” was coined by a 16th century Spanish monk – St. John of the Cross. John was profoundly acquainted with suffering, but for him the dark night was a precursor to the bright and breaking dawn, a necessary crucible which prepares us for a life of truth, of love, and in mission. The problem, according to John, is that we run from this opportunity, avoid it, dismiss it, even theologize it away. Yes, even in the 16th century people were looking for quick fixes! Instead, John pleaded with people to courageously face suffering, not to like it, approve of it, or minimize it, but to be transformed through it. This is difficult, though. A favorite writer of mine says:
Spiritual transformation often aborts early in the process because it is difficult to face the depths of darkness that threaten non-being; it is tempting to revert back into the comfortable sleepiness of life before the experience of awakening. It is precisely through the endurance of the darkness as one seeks for the promise of new being, however, that a person is opened up to the experience of the ‘illuminative’ way. Here one experiences a new sense of joy and peace in the presence of God.
Have you noticed the difference sitting with people who’ve courageously endured the wilderness of suffering in contrast to those who’ve somehow navigated around it? Do you sense what I sense? Depth. Wisdom. Gravity. Honesty. Accessibility.
Profoundly acquainted with suffering himself, Gerald Sittser writes, “Deep sorrow often has the effect of stripping life of pretense, vanity, and waste… It forces us to ask basic questions about what is most important in life… that is why many people who suffer sudden and severe loss often become different people.” We become different.
Yes, some become bitter. Some are not transformed through their suffering, in fact. Often times, I think that many who endure suffering do not have a spiritual guide or mentor to walk them through the wilderness way. Many do not have pastors acquainted with suffering. Long gone are the days of pastors like Augustine, Baxter, Rutherford, or Spurgeon, whose sufferings and struggles became fodder for honest conversations, powerful preaching, and moving letters to their congregations. Today, we who call ourselves pastors feel the pressure to keep things moving up and to the right, alienating some who are suffering in our midst.
Yet, some are also transformed in the midst of suffering. The dark night has the power to shatter our shallow conception of the ‘good life’, to crack open the hard shells of our egos. Such is the case for Sandy, a 50-something pastor whose many miscarriages and family issues have not brought bitterness, though she has certainly lamented in great anguish, but instead have brought a sober joyfulness which makes her wise and honest and accessible to the many people who seek her counsel. Such is the case for Curt, whose affair led him to resign from ministry and nearly destroyed his marriage, yet created a pathway for him to explore his sexual abuse, and to own years of pain he’d created in his marriage.
As Richard Rohr says, “If we don’t transform our pain, we’re bound to transmit it.”
Finally, the dark night forms us in ways that set us free to love boldly and compassionately. On the night Jesus’ friend betrayed him, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and then gave it. And in the same way, Jesus takes us, blesses us, breaks us, and gives us to a hurting world to be God’s very presence. “The dark night is a key part of God’s missional purpose in the world,” Daniel Shrock writes, and I’ve seen it too many times to deny it. God redeems our broken stories, weaving new and better ones which paint pictures of redemption and flourishing in our broken world. Our honest lives become the great signpost in a broken world – “Redemption Here!”
With Jesus, we’re invited to drink the cup of shame. With Jesus, our wounds may also become sacred. It strikes me that on the resurrected body of Jesus, the imprints of the nails which bound him to the Cross are still seen (John 20:27). It strikes me that even those who’ve already gone to be with Jesus continue to cry out, “How long, O Lord?” Rev. 6:10. Somehow, someway, we Christians, so addicted to our comfort and privilege, need to reconcile with the way of the Cross.
In our world, wounds can be photo-shopped away. In our churches, we can navigate around any talk of the dark night. I get it. Self-improvement projects are easier, and the cosmetic results impress. And yet, with St. Paul, we’re invited to experience a resurrection power which transcends cosmetic change, a transformative power that only comes in and through a real participation in Christ’s sufferings and death.
The pathway navigated by God is in and through, not over and around. And in and through the dark night is the way to real and lasting transformation.