One of my favorite books is a slim little volume by George MacDonald entitled Diary of an Old Soul. George MacDonald is one of those fantastic authors who maintains timelessness across the span of time and who speaks to the human condition with unfailing contemporaneity. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, MacDonald fell a bit out of favor even with C.S. Lewis constantly pointing back to MacDonald as his inspiration. Its about time MacDonald was rediscovered.
Diary of an Old Soul consists of daily poems – only a few lines long – that George MacDonald wrote chronicling his relationship with God over an entire years time after losing two of his children in the same year to death.
You can pick this small volume up for less than $15 at almost any bookstore – and it is such a light and powerful read – I highly recommend it.
Cairn University held its second annual Church Leaders’ Conference today and I attended along with two parishioners – John Broglin and Kiki Mackey (my sister-in-law). We left together from CCC at 8:45 am and arrived a few minutes later at Cairn. The conference was being held in Chatlos Chapel, a few Biblical Learning Center classrooms, and the lobby outside of the chapel. I attended the conference last year as well and you can see my thoughts on that conference here.
Once again the process of registration was speedy – taking only a few seconds. We picked up lanyard name tags, a Cairn bag with a few items (pen, program, index card, and a brochure for Cairn’s MAR, MDIV, and THM degree offerings). Then it was off to a second table where we were offered our choice of Cairn coffee or travel mug and a book (Does Grace Grow Best in Winter? by Ligon Duncan with J. Nicholas Reid).
Then it was over to the continental breakfast – which again included donuts, mixed fruits, danishes, and so on along with a number of hot/cold beverages. I’m a pretty simple guy and enjoy a good continental breakfast – and this satisfied me fully. They also opened Chatlos Chapel for us so we could sit down while eating (which was a step up from last year I appreciated).
By 9 am everyone had filed into Chatlos Chapel and Benjamin Harding along with a string quartet1Excuse my music terminology, I’m not sure I am using the right term here. (consisting of Cairn students) led us in musical worship. We stood together and sang Bless the Lord (Matt Redman) followed by a hymn (the title of which I cannot recall) and then Bob Kauflin’s O Great God.
Jonathan Master briefly introduced our speaker, Dr. J. Ligon Duncan, a well-known pastor, professor, and author. I wasn’t as familiar with him as last year’s speaker – R. Kent Hughes – but having been so pleased with the previous year’s conference, I decided to attend again (and am glad I did).
Duncan gave an hour long sermon on Ministry in the Midst of Suffering utilizing a number of passages throughout the Old and New Testaments (such as Nehemiah 9:27, Job 2:13, Ephesians 3:13, 2 Tim. 1:8-9, 2:3, 4:5; Hebrews 2:10; James 5:10,13; 1 Peter 2:19-21, 5:9-10).
We had a brief break from 10:30 am to 10:45 am and I scooted off to one of the lesser-known bathrooms at Cairn to skip the lines. We now had the opportunity to choose between several different parallel sessions. The options were “Discipling Your Family Through Personal Suffering” (Pastor Rob Burns), “Bouncing Back from Burnout” (Pastor John Stange), “No Graven Image: Suffering and How We Think of God” (Curtis Hill)2I’m guessing a pastor as well, but I haven’t personally interacted with Mr. Hill and the program didn’t say., or “Suffering as God’s Discipline” (Dr. Jonathan Master).
I chose to attend Stange’s Bouncing Back from Burnout, first b/c Stange is a local pastor and I don’t get the opportunity to hear others speak frequently – so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. Secondly, b/c I’ve been through some suffering in my life which is conducive to burnout along with being the sort of personality that tends towards burnout.
Stange’s session was informative. Stange is a light-hearted speaker who manages to intertwine humor with the ‘serious stuff.’ He used ample illustrations from his own life and stories from Luke 9 and 10 to anchor his thesis – that burnout usually occurs when we become more invested in doing for Christ than delighting in Christ. My favorite quote from the session was, “You don’t have to attend every argument you are invited to…when you argue with a baby, both you and the baby look stupid.” While humorous, it also portrays some frequently forgotten truths…I’ll let you figure out what they are.
Kiki attended the session with Stange while John attended Rob Burns’ session – which he enjoyed and shared his notes with me – and I found them useful and encouraging as well.
Lunch was cold hoagies, fruit and vegetable salads, chips, pretzels, brownies, cookies, hot/cold beverages, and so on. A satisfying meal and a great opportunity to discuss with other attendees.
Dr. Todd Williams dropped in briefly to greet us and encourage us that Cairn deeply believes in its role as support to rather than replacement of the church and that it encourages all its students – whether pastoral or business (or education, social work, counseling, and so on) majors to be actively engaged with the church throughout their lifetimes.
Benjamin Harding again led us in musical worship – this time we sang Bancroft’s Before the Throne of God Above and Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s In Christ Alone – two of my favorite songs.
Dr. Duncan spoke from perhaps 1:15-1:20 till 2:15-2:30 pm. There was a ten minute period in which everyone was encouraged to pray with those at their table for one another and the sufferings we are/will encounter and strength to glorify God in the midst of them.
Then Dr. Master asked attendee submitted questions of Dr. Duncan from 2:30 to 3:00 pm. I had almost skipped out on this part – but am glad I didn’t. Duncan addressed quite thoroughly several important topics including pastoral responses to clinical depression and whether leaders should continue in leadership in the midst of struggles at home.
When it was all over we made our way back out and were greeted with another book (I got two, as I missed picking up the second around lunch time) – Thomas Watson’s (17th century) All Things For Good which he wrote as a pastor during a significant period of suffering and Preaching the Cross, a compilation by Mark Dever, Duncan, R. Albert Mohler Jr., C.J. Mahaney, John MacArthur, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul.
The new Director of Advancement (whose name I have unfortunately already forgotten) grabbed me on the way out and offered me a Cairn t-shirt – which I gladly accepted and look forward to wearing proudly and frequently.
Once again, I was greatly satisfied with the conference. It cost $25 again this year – but $25 for at least four or five hours of solid teaching, two meals, and three books (plus Cairn memorabilia) – I say that is a pretty sweet deal.
I think this is a very intelligent move on Cairn’s part to reach out to church leaders. It brings scores of leaders onto the Cairn campus where they have the opportunity to interact with faculty and staff from the University. The light touch Cairn demonstrated again this year in self-promotion again reinforced the feel that Cairn was and is sincerely interested in being a resource for church leaders and not simply in using church leaders as a recruitment tool.
Recommendations for Improvement
Some of the small items that I thought could be improved last year where improved to my delight, but there is always the opportunity for further improvement, so here are my recommendations for next year’s conference:
- Last year I had commented on the feel I had that it was “Pastor’s Conference” as opposed to a “Church Leaders’ Conference” – despite the latter being the name. In one small way, this front took a step backward as some of the signage spoke of the “Pastor’s Forum” – which reinforces the idea that the conference is for pastors exclusively.3I assume that Cairn is attempting to bring in a wide circle of ministry leaders, but if I’m incorrect and they desire to reach almost exclusively pastors with this conference, I’d suggest that a change of name to something like “Pastor’s Conference” would make sense.
- Overall, I felt the general session and breakout sessions (at least the one I attended) where more open to general audiences than last years had been, so this was a step forward.
- Another item I had mentioned on this front was the lack of female attendees – last year I saw two. This year there was a small leap forward to perhaps five or eight – but the conference continued to be male dominated. I think this is unfortunate and would love to see the diversity increase significantly.4Perhaps I was just more aware this year, but I did notice several ethnic minorities present – which I also see as a positive move towards diversity. I know Cairn has made great steps in diversifying the student body and I’d love to see the conference reflect that diversity as well.
- I still think that adding some vendors and giving us some time to walk through displays, etc. would be a worthwhile endeavor. Not only could Cairn charge vendors for this privilege, but more importantly, it would provide church leaders’ the opportunity to interact with vendors – and even in an internet age, finding vendors for specific products/services (especially related to ministry) is not always the easiest task and there is something to be said for face-to-face interaction and hands-on product demonstration.
- Last year I had suggested more opportunity for individuals to interact with one another and share their experiences. I think a bit more of this occurred around the meals, in the breakout sessions, and so on – though I’m not sure that anything was altered. I’d still love to interact with others more, but also felt the conference was pretty packed and that it might not be feasible to jam another opportunity into the already full day.
- While last year I wasn’t too excited about the main speaker going on for 2.5 hrs. throughout the day, this year I felt the length much less. The length of the speaking could perhaps be reduced to 1.75 hrs. and then points 2 and/or 3 might be implemented during that time.
If you are in church ministry and anywhere near Cairn University, I highly recommend making the Cairn Church Leaders’ Conference part of your annual schedule. It is a relaxing, edifying, and educational experience at a price one can’t beat.
I’ve experienced my fair share of heartache and suffering in this world…but I do not consider myself to have suffered anywhere near what others have suffered and I feel disoriented, sick, and weak when I even think of some of the ways in which individuals suffer. I think of a small child being taken into a dark room by a parent and there forced to engage in painful, strange, and disturbing acts. This occurs not just once – but repeatedly. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
Or I think of the children who are sold into sexual slavery. Prostituted from infancy on – pushed into the arms of sick individuals who hurt them and use them over and over and over again. A constant stream of faces that do things that are practically unspeakable.
The fundamental questions that arises in the midst of all this evil is, “Where is God?” If God exists, if God is good, if God is powerful – why does He not intervene?
I’ve heard and read many of the logical and philosophical answers offered by Christians to explain the existence of evil, but I have none to be satisfactory. There have been times when I have nearly abandoned my faith. Not because I stopped believing in God, but because I didn’t know how I could believe that He was good.
I do not think that we can provide a satisfactory philosophical answer to the question of evil. No equation can stand against the realities of evil in our world. Yet, I still believe in a good, even more, a perfect God. How? For what it is worth I want to share how I believe.
Before I do, let me note that it is not that I do not struggle with the problem of evil. Sometimes I am a man in the midst of an ocean of evil and pain and I am drowning. I can’t see my way out and no logical explanation will suffice. But I have found that this answer – at least for me – is enough to keep me from drowning. It does not dry up the ocean and I still slip below the surface with frequency, but it is something to hold onto – with bloody finger nails that scrape into hope with all their might.
So, here it goes…
When evil, pain, and suffering overwhelm me. When I find myself drowning, hopeless and lost I center my mind upon the cross. I transport in my mind’s eye back to that day as Christ hung upon the cross. I look upon his blood drenched and naked body. I sit at the feet of the cross and let his blood splash onto my head and face and as I sit there on that horrible, horrific day, I experience something – love and joint experience.
I can’t explain why we suffer. I can’t even explain why Jesus had to suffer. Yes, yes, I know all the proper theological answers – but there is an experiential aspect, a fogginess to it all, that leaves me feeling as if my understanding is only partial. That God has yet to unveil to me the depths of His mind on this matter.
What I do know is that as I sit at the foot of the cross with my agony and with the agony of the world bearing down upon my mind and shoulders, His blood drips onto me and I know. Jesus is God. God is suffering. God has chosen to enter into suffering with me.
While I have been tempted at times to think that God was a sadist – enjoying inflicting pain on others, I have never been tempted to think that God is a masochist – receiving pleasure from suffering Himself. So, here is God and He is suffering with me. He does not explain to me why suffering is necessary, why evil must run rampant, but He also is willing to enter into that suffering and allow that evil to ravage His mind and body as it does ours.
This in and of itself could be enough. That God chose to suffer as we suffered, but I do not see God suffering only during the cross, nor only during His earthly life – I see God suffering today, yesterday, and forever – until evil has been stomped into the ground, never to arise again.
Sometimes I feel despair for those I love. I ask God to heal them, to save them, to help them and they remain in the midst of their suffering. Then the reality comes to me, “I love them more than you do.” I don’t understand why He allows them to suffer – but I know that His heart aches more deeply and thoroughly than mine ever can.
What does all this mean? That God, from the beginning of time till the end, has chosen to suffer. He suffers not only my pain and your pain, but each of the billions of humans on this earth’s pain – and I think, the pain of the animals and of everything that has life and breath.
This belief allows me to be actively pursuing the good for myself and others. I know that God desires the good for us, yet at the same time I do not feel responsible when I cannot make the good happen. I know that God is in control and that whatever suffering we must face as a result will be suffered with Him. That the tears on my face, on your face – are matched by the tears of the Father.
I’m still afraid at times. I know when the evil comes it throws me against the wall, tears my heart out, rips my intestines and ties them in knots, squeezes my heart till it bleeds, crushes my brain till is splatters. I see others suffering and I am thrown into desperation. I want so badly to make a real difference. I want so badly to help. Yet so often I am incapable. And I always know that as I am in the midst of the ocean my bloody fingers are only holding onto that old wooden cross – the symbol of a God that suffers – with the barest of strength.
Sometimes I lose my grip and begin to drown…and when I am not in that moment, I know, I know, that the Savior will come for me. That He will catch me and bring me back. He loves me more than I love myself. He loves you more than you love yourself.
- Michael Tooley has a concise yet well-rounded discussion of The Problem of Evil in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is quite technical at numerous points.
- Thomas Talbott provides an interesting yet unorthodox understanding of the acceptability of suffering in his book, The Inescapable Love of God.
- George MacDonald offers poetry and sermons on the topic throughout Diary of an Old Soul and Unspoken Sermons.
- Alvin Plantinga is a contemporary Christian philosopher who has written extensively on the problem of evil.
- A more classic look at the topic is found in C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.
- One might also consider Randy Alcorn’s If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil.
- Finally, Clark Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness tangentially tackles the topic from an open theist perspective by making God the God of the possible. This book would be considered at the fringes or evangelical orthodoxy or perhaps even outside along with Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God.