Chapter 11 – One Answer at a Time
On June 13, 2012, Michael Sokolski died. Sokolski was the Polish-born American engineer who created the computer test sheet. His invention is now known as the “Scranton”, which has become a code word for the act of filling in small circles with a #2 pencils by students everywhere.
A culture of urban wisdom has grown up around the Scranton, with several Internet sites devoted to beating the system. Did you know all of the answers on a test sheet will be counted correctly if you smear them with Chapstick? And we all know everything we read on the Internet is true!
Some advice is helpful. Perhaps you remember your teacher telling you to guess as a last resort if you were stumped on a test question. On Scranton tests, wrong answers don’t count against the final score so it only makes sense to make a choice, even if it is an uninformed one. But it is important not to get carried away. If a test sheet scanner reads two answers for one question it will automatically count it wrong.
Similarly, when it comes to personal trials, if we try to answer too many questions at once, we can get stuck in analysis and never answer anything. We begin to resemble those coin counting machines in grocery stores that shut down when we pile up too much change. The counter can do the job, but only at a given pace.
When we are struggling to process events in our lives, it helps to break things down into smaller pieces and prioritize our steps. Most of us do this instinctively, and the degree to which we take time to do it purposefully will increase our sense of control over our circumstances. When Jesus’ brother James told us to find joy in our trials because they develop perseverance, he added, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4). Maturity is a process that rarely occurs when we try to apply a quick fix. For this reason we must learn to take deep breaths, and give God time to help us order our steps, one question at a time.
The day after the fire that claimed our church facility, our leaders met to begin charting a course for recovery. We were confident God would show us how to turn our tragedy into a triumph for His kingdom, but we knew the road ahead was long and we could only speculate how Satan might try to destroy us. The good news is we survived with flying colors. Our ministry emerged from our restoration stronger and more vibrant than ever.
I contribute our success first to a faithful God who guided us, secondly, to some of the wisest and most gifted leaders in the world, and third to a church family that responded with unwavering devotion. As the Body of Christ we put our personal goals aside for the season of need and pressed on day after day, year after year.
But we didn’t move without a plan. The “day after”, we sorted through many necessary tasks, processes and priorities. We assembled teams of people to assume important roles. Most importantly, we resisted the urge to decide everything overnight. In fact, our first step was to take a day to pray, plan and rest. Outside well-wishers showed up to help, but in most cases we just wrote down their names and phone numbers and thanked them for their thoughtfulness.
In times of crisis we want to take control and start “doing”, but usually what we need most is not control, but self-control. If we fail in this respect we can find ourselves answering so many questions at once we get them all wrong.
How then, do we organize our steps? In life, our struggles don’t come to us on a test sheet with three or four possible solutions. Instead, they flood into our lives like tidal waves. How can we think about the next step when the ground beneath us has disappeared and we find ourselves treading water in an endless bath of froth and debris?
In the case of our fire recovery we decided ministry to people would be our number one priority. This doesn’t mean our reconstruction work was not ministry, or that the logistics of things had nothing to do with people. Yes, it was important to physically secure the burned out remains of our facility, and to begin the long journey that would ultimately lead us to a new home for ministry. But it was more important to find a temporarily place to gather, establish a means for people to find the help they needed, and continue our mission of grace to a lost and dying world.
In most trials, once we identify what’s important, we can climb above the rubble and create a reasonable timeline for reclaiming our lives. First we address the critical questions, make a few guesses when we don’t know for sure, and lay the rest aside to be dealt with when time and energy permits. I have found three “C’s” to be extremely helpful as we make these determinations. They are, “comfort”, “control” and “cause.”
We all need to be comforted when we are hurting. Our compassionate Father cares for us through His angels, the providential unfolding of circumstances, and the love of His people. The Psalmist wrote, “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul” (Psalm 94:19).
God will define His ministry in our lives, but it is partially up to us to decide what we need from His people. Depending on our circumstances and our personality, we will either choose to share our needs with everyone, or limit our information to a select few. Those who know us will pick up on our cues and apply God’s grace accordingly. Establishing these kinds of boundaries is natural and healthy. This doesn’t mean there aren’t times when we need the whole church body to surround us in love, but it does acknowledge there are times when the most loving thing people can do is give us the space we need to heal. Caring people who have experienced trials themselves know there is such a thing as too much help, and we shouldn’t feel guilty if we need to be left alone or find a place to hide with our loved ones. If you fear pushing people away is unspiritual, consider the example of Jesus who slipped away to pray alone and surrounded Himself with His closest disciples while He anguished in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Secondly, we need control in the midst of chaos. We should not expect to have complete control over everything, but our ability to order our own lives in some way reminds us we are not destitute. When we face tragedies, we will often busy ourselves with unimportant tasks because we are consumed with the need to manage, and the people who love us turn us loose to “knock ourselves out.” Nothing is more human.
Of course, we know God is in control. With the psalmist we proclaim, “The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake” (Psalm 99:1). Yet, we still need to know we have the power to personally influence events in our lives. When we can’t do anything about everything we will do everything possible about anything.
When my father died, I faced these obsessions. I wasn’t able to determine the circumstances of my father’s death, but I could decide who I was going to allow in my circle of pain. With the exception of my wife who was on the journey with me, I guarded my feelings and looked for an opportunity to grieve at a time and place of my choosing. My church family understood, and ironically I would reveal some of my deepest thoughts in front of them as I preached. Preaching was a forum I could control since the congregation wasn’t likely to talk back. This is very human as well.
While our desire to control is fundamental, as our trials unfold we must discern what we can and can’t control. It is wearisome to care for things we can entrust to close friends, and counterproductive to manage things that are unmanageable. This is an area where our dependence on God must grow, and our pride must shrink. Sometimes the first glimmer of hope appears in our lives when we turn loose of the things we have been trying to control and focus on the few simple things we know for sure.
Lastly, we must order our perception of cause. Cause is the context for the hard questions of “Why me?” and “Why now?” that were addressed earlier. We have already determined it is impossible to answer all of the “whys” of life, however, it is possible to answer some of them. Knowing the difference is the key to clearing away the fog in our minds and finding the strength to move forward when we haven’t completely resolved the past.
Cause is undoubtedly the most difficult of the three “C’s” to process. Why did an SUV hit a tree killing its driver and sparing its passenger? Did the driver err? Was he intoxicated? Did the driver forget to buckle his seat belt? Did he swerve to spare the life of a pedestrian? Was there a mechanical malfunction in the SUV’s steering system, or did a tire blow out? Was the passenger’s life miraculously saved because God had a job for him to do? Was the driver’s life lost because his work on earth was complete?
Some “whys” can be resolved through careful investigation, especially when they involve machinery or technology. For example, NASA’s space shuttle program, while wildly successful, will be remembered for two disasters involving shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Challenger exploded during its ascent due to a faulty O-ring. Columbia broke apart on reentry as a result of damaged heat shield tiles. When the cause of these tragedies was discovered, measures were taken to prevent the same malfunctions from occurring again. Still, some ask: was there a higher purpose at work? Apollo 13 also suffered a catastrophic accident while orbiting the moon, but its passengers returned safely to earth. Why?
These parallel investigations involving mechanical-technical and higher purpose causes represent two important thought processes that are evident in most of our lives when we face a trial. I should clarify my use of the word “cause” is not intended to suggest God initiates tragedy. Human suffering is to be expected in a fallen world. But regardless of whether God directly causes an event or merely allows it, we still want to know “why?”
I used to cringe when family members asked police officers or doctors about the grizzly details of a loved one’s death. It seemed to me graphic facts could only serve to accentuate the pain. In some ways, they did, but in other ways they were all a part of coming to terms with the cause. Piecing together why something bad happened seemed to help people move forward. The truth didn’t always make them less angry or resentful, but it did remove the fog.
Unfortunately, finding a higher purpose is more difficult than finding a faulty piece of machinery. This is especially true when we discover our pain is the result of irresponsibility or some evil act. People sometimes tell me they believe their trial is a part of a bigger plan, yet they still experience feelings of confusion and abandonment. What they are really sharing is an accurate picture of the spiritual struggle between our certainties and uncertainties, and the frantic need to find God’s hand in them.
This is why I encourage people to practice the biblical principle of contending. It is nearly impossible to live with profound questions we can’t presently answer, or may never answer, if we don’t believe we are free to be honest with God. There is no sin in saying, “God, I don’t like it. I don’t even agree with it. But I am going to try to learn to live with it because I trust You.” In this way we can acknowledge the existence of a higher purpose but still have peace if we never know it. When we come to this place, and stop trying to answer too many questions at once, healing begins.