"Reflection Part 2: Certainty, Suffering, and Who’s Not at the Table?" Transcript

Season 1, Episode 13

Jonathan Walton: God's answer to Job is, “I am God and you are not.” And I think to myself, “Why isn't it the most comforting thing for God's response to our suffering to be, ‘I am God’?” The more money I have, the more stuff I know, and the more I learn, the less that answer is satisfactory for me. And I don't like that.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]   

Sy Hoekstra: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF press. My name is Sy Hoekstra. I am here with nobody. It's just me giving you a little intro. We have part two of our little reflection conversation that we've been doing today, another kind of mini episode. The three of us, the hosts, have been taking a little bit of time to pause and reflect on some of the just amazing things that we've been hearing from some of our guests. And just giving everyone some time to meditate, think about, reflect on, digest some of those things before we continue on with our show, and this is the second half of that conversation.

So before we get started, just a real quick reminder, if you like this show and you want to support it, ktfpress.com is the place to go. Set up a monthly or an annual subscription. We'd really appreciate it. Follow us @KTFPress on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Subscribe and follow this podcast, wherever you're listening. Leave us a rating and review. All those things are really helpful. We really appreciate it.

When we paused this conversation, Suzie was in the middle of talking about two of the main points that she's been thinking a lot about since we started this show and now she's going to get into her second point. So I will drop you back into that conversation now. Thank you so much for listening. Here is Suzie.

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Suzie Lahoud: The second thing that's really stuck with me is our conversation, it's from our conversation with Chuck Armstrong. And Pastor Chuck, he's a phenomenal communicator and did such a beautiful job of modeling real vulnerability and authenticity in our conversation with him in a way that I just so deeply appreciated. And within that, he allowed us to really press him on some things. And honestly, what ended up sticking with me the most, it was actually a comment that Jonathan made in response to our conversation around his discussions with his family around politics and racial justice and those types of things. And Jonathan, you said, you know, “This question of, when we talk about, you know, ‘Why are you or aren't you talking to your family about these things?’ For me, that's a visceral question. That's a visceral response of ‘Why won't you fight for me?’”

And what it clarified for me was something that I had sort of suspected and kind of sensed prior to that conversation, but it really solidified, was that every conversation that I have, every table that I sit at, every time I'm in the room, I need to be cognizant of those who are not at the table with me, those who are not in the room with me. And I need to be able to hear their voices and see their pain. And I don't want to say, “speak on their behalf” because, you know, I don't believe in this idea of being a voice for the voiceless. People have voices, but people don't always have a seat at the table. People aren't always welcomed into certain spaces. And so every space that you enter, that's an opportunity and that's a privilege that you have.

And again, that's something I've carried with me into, you know, church discussions on committees that I've sat on or conversations with my family. Like Jonathan said, so much of this happens across the kitchen table. And it's just been so helpful for me to remember that fact, because I think that's the difference between trying to say things because you're just seeking to virtue signal or be politically correct, or, you know, I know there's a lot of talk around cancel culture. Maybe you're partaking in that in some way. And I think there's a difference between that and really genuinely trying to think, you know, “If this person were sitting here at the table with me, what would they say? Or what would they want to hear? What needs to be said?” And then it helps me speak from a genuine place of conviction that, you know, hopefully is not coming from a place of just judgment, but is really just trying to bring that voice out. Yeah. That's something- I think I said this in the episode and I'll say it again- it was a good word of accountability, I think, for people like me.

Sy Hoekstra: And it's a, yeah, it's a good point, I think, to remember that the point that Jonathan made is a very good one for some people who are asking the question of people, “Why aren't you defending me?” or whatever, but it's also for, basically, for white people, the question is one that, like the emotions of the person asking the question doesn't really matter. It's still a point of, you do actually need to do this because you have the access. And it's a strategic point about trying to change how our relationships with the other work, and hopefully changing some people's minds in the process.

Suzie Lahoud: Well, and I should say too, it's something that Sandra Maria Van Opstal touched on in our conversation with her in a very just strategic, practical way too.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. So one, thanks for the affirmation. I appreciate that. To what Sy just said about it being incumbent upon white people to do that, the person that came up for me when I was saying that was actually a friend of mine who is non-binary. And I was thinking about, I did an interview with a contentious group of men.

Suzie Lahoud: That's quite a description!

Jonathan Walton: I'm trying to be kind. But they wanted me to say something that I refused to say, and finally, I just said straight up, I said, “I'm not talking to you. I'm talking to the queer person that's going to find this video or find this podcast. And they need to know that God loves them. They need to know that. I'm not going to sit on your podcast and then stand on the side of the straight white males. I'm not going to do that. Because you're going to talk to me and you're never going to talk to them. You're never going to bring them on a podcast. The only, the only value that this queer person has in front of you is as a potential convert. That's it. Like you want them to quote unquote “change” so that then they can tell their story and you can be comfortable.” That is, that's what I said.

I think they just dropped it after that. But I said, “I'm not, I can't, I'm not gonna do that,” right, “so that you feel good about me and my theology, and so that you feel comfortable promoting my book because I condemned, you know, homosexuality on your podcast.” I think it's true that we can do violence with the words that we say. And I think it's true that we can bless people with the words that we say. And so to go back to Reverend Van Opstal, the reality is, we have to make more space at the table. And when we do that, I think we are more reflective of who Jesus really is and what he came to do.

Sy Hoekstra: Okay, so here are a couple of mine then. I think the first one for me is Irene Cho talking on our show about open-ended questions. Okay, so she had a whole spiel that you can go back and listen to if you want, but I will summarize here, about how you repeatedly see in the gospels people asking Jesus some close-ended question. They want a specific answer about a specific issue. And he completely refuses to answer their question. So instead of giving them an answer, he gives them an open-ended question in response. Meaning, he's not looking for a specific “yes” or “no” answer, a specific answer to a doctrinal question or whatever, which is a lot of times what they're getting at. And he asks them a question that is designed to make them think about their idols, their hearts, that, whatever. And again, actually, Jonathan, something you said at one point on the show is that Jesus asks us very specific questions. Like he doesn't call us, he didn't call people in the gospels to like, “Here's a bunch of doctrine I want you to assent to,” or even like, “I want you to sit here with me and pray the sinner's prayer.” Like he asks the rich man, “Will you sell everything you have to the poor?” you know. Or he asks people, you know, “Will you leave this business that you're in” or something like that, “and follow me instead?” So I think those ideas that both of you put forward got me thinking a lot about certainty and the role of certainty in a faith that seeks to consolidate power and make sure you understand who's in the in-group and the out-group.

And then, which took me to the book of Job. And Job, I think it's interesting to me that Job was one of the first books that a lot of scholars think was written. Like it was one of the first pieces of scripture actually written down and, you know, that the story is Job and his misguided friends just trying to figure out why all these terrible things are happening to Job over and over again. And it's just like endless wrestling until at the end, God says, “Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?” and Job never gets an answer to why the bad things that happened to him happened to him. And then good things happen to him and the book ends. And that's it. And it's kind of like, it's, you know, all these attempts to control your prosperity, to control the circumstances around you, and to understand things clearly and to, in a lot of ways, play God in that way and not embrace, again, your own limitations, is something that Jesus, I think, in asking those open-ended questions, or in, you know, not letting people get away with just saying, “I checked all the boxes and followed all the rules. So what else do I need to do? I'm good now, right Jesus?” Like, that's what he says to the rich man, right? I think he's just gonna, it's just this wall that you're going to keep hitting. He's never going to let you be in full control of yourself, your circumstances. He's never going to let you have complete certainty over why everything happens. He's not going to let you make complete sense of your life.

And we just resist that so hard and in so many ways. And, I don't know, I just love how much, I don't know, how good Irene was at articulating that and how, not just how good she was at articulating it, but how joyful that makes her. Like she embraces the mystery so wholeheartedly. She embraces the lack of understanding and says like, “Oh, this is actually a way in which I can become more mature in my spirituality, more mature in my faith. I can get closer to God. I can embrace God more fully because I'm not trying to create that certainty for myself. And I don't have that idol of certainty.” And that's, it's just, that's something that is really, really hard for people who have been trained in their theology by people who have spent centuries doing some pretty horrific things to hold on to power and to hold onto the ability to define and hold on to the ability to control.

And now, because you've taken a couple of deep breaths while I've been talking, Jonathan, [Jonathan and Suzie laugh] I'm gonna let you say what it is that you have to say.

Jonathan Walton: Yo man! Listen, it boggles my mind, when I got to Columbia people asking questions like, “Why do we suffer?” Because that was never a question growing up for me. It just wasn't a question. And so as you were talking, I'm thinking about Job. Like God's answer to Job is, “I am God and you are not.” And I think to myself, “Why isn't it the most comforting thing for God's response to our suffering to be, ‘I am God’?” The more money I have, the more stuff I know, and the more I learn and all that stuff, the less that answer is satisfactory for me. And I don't like that.

Sy Hoekstra: The less God's answer is satisfactory for you?

Jonathan Walton: The less God's answer to Job is satisfactory for me.

Sy Hoekstra: Please elaborate.

Jonathan Walton: Okay. So, when I was 15 years-old, when I was 16 years-old, I got thrown off a motorcycle. And they said it looked like an angel put me back on the bike. It fish-tailed and like stopped in front of a concrete wall about 40 feet in front of me…

Sy Hoekstra: You leaped over an intersection, specifically.

Jonathan Walton: Yes. I leaped over an intersection.

Sy Hoekstra: By accident. Came off the bike in midair and then was, got back on the bike somehow.

Jonathan Walton: Yes. Yes. There's a whole, there's a big thing. It changed my life, right.

Sy Hoekstra: And then, sorry, can I finish this story? Then you got off the bike, sat down, and wrote a poem. [Jonathan and Sy laugh]

Suzie Lahoud: That is the most Jonathan Walton story ever.

Sy Hoekstra: Yup.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, it is. No, that’s literally what happened. That is, that is exactly what happened.

Suzie Lahoud: Oh my gosh.

Sy Hoekstra: It’s a very good poem.

Jonathan Walton: It's, it's probably the best one [laughs] but yeah, so it changed my life. But in that poem, those words were satisfying for me when I was 16, or 15 and 16.

Sy Hoekstra: And what specifically, what was satisfying? Or like, what did you say? What was satisfying?

Jonathan Walton: So the poem basically says, I'm saved by his grace, right. So the end of the, now I'm going to have to like do the thing on this podcast or something...

Sy Hoekstra: You're going to have to do some lines of poetry for us, Jonathan.

Suzie Lahoud: Do it!

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. Yeah. So it's like, so it goes like,

“We're all people pebbles tossed into a pool

Every ripple I create, in turn a ripple you

So in unison we ripple in a type of ripple rhythm

But we need to ripple in a way that benefits our livin’”

And then it goes into like, so accidents happen, right. And we can trust God because he will take care of all these things. And it's actually just about his Kingdom. Like that's what it's about. And if I can trust him, I can trust his Kingdom. And whether I suffer or whether I don't suffer, that doesn't change God. It doesn't change him. But the more that I thought that I could exert control over the circumstances in this world… So, for example, that I could change that sex trafficking is happening in Northern Uganda, that I could change that child soldiers are being taken from their mothers and fathers and boarding schools. That I could change that. The more that I believed that I could do because of my education, because of money, because of connections; the more that God would be God over all these things became a less satisfying answer. And that to me is scary because then it makes sense when Jesus says, like, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man in the Kingdom of God.” Why would I want that? I have a spa and a hot tub and a really nice house and a person who cleans it for me and like all these different things. So why would I want heaven?

Sy Hoekstra: And I think I know, you're not saying that like somebody who's gone through a lot of suffering and is wondering why is just like a fool who doesn't understand, you know what I'm saying?

Jonathan Walton: No, no. That’s not what I’m saying.

Sy Hoekstra: And I know you're not saying that. But what you are saying is, and what I, well, what I'm saying is… [all laugh]

Jonathan Walton: Cuz I just said what I was trying to say [all laugh].

Sy Hoekstra: I'm trying to borrow your authority. That's what you're not saying. And I, but I think the thing that we are, that I'm trying to, that I would like to point out here, is that the question of, “Why do we suffer? Why do bad things happen?” is more relevant to a society where a lot fewer bad things happen.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: So if you grow up, and you're in power, and you have security, and sometimes, just because life is life, it gets taken away from you in various ways, big or small, that is extremely disorienting. But, if you grew up in the Black church in Virginia,

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Sy Hoekstra: “Why do we suffer?” is like less of an important question, right? I don't mean to speak to the Black church in Virginia, but...

Jonathan Walton: No, no. It's, it's true. I mean, the bigger question is usually “When is Jesus coming?” That's the big question.

Sy Hoekstra: Right. When is Jesus coming? When is Jesus, in whom we have faith, coming? How is he walking through this with us?

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. Cause you haven't lived with this illusion of security and control.

Sy Hoekstra: And plenty of people, who, you know, are in very difficult circumstances obviously still lament, obviously still question God. But it's just, it is in a different context. It is. And it's in a context of understanding better the ways in which God has been faithful and will continue to be faithful, but like, whatever you’re going through in the moment is really hard in that moment, or really hard for a very long period of time. It's just, yeah, it's coming from a very different place, that sort of lamentation and that sort of questioning.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. I loved, just to go off of that, I loved that Irene referenced that passage in Job, and I love that you brought that up again now, Sy. And I have to say, that was one, kind of the passage I sort of clung to at a certain point during my time in Lebanon, because I feel like this question kept coming up for me with the conflict in Syria, of you know, “How can God allow all of this?” and sitting with families and hearing their stories and not really knowing what to say and not wanting to fall into that cliché of, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God works all things for good” and not feeling like that was the answer. And so that passage that you just talked about, where God shows up and says at the end, “Where were you when I formed the foundations of the earth?” and just resting in the mystery and magnitude of God, that was really the only place that I could land at that point.

Sy Hoekstra: There's similar themes, I think, in the piece that you wrote for our book too.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. Right. And because it was written around that same time. I wrote that piece when I was actually still in Lebanon.

Jonathan Walton: As we're talking, I don't know if this is relevant, you can cut it if it's not, but me and Nathan, me and my brother were sitting down with Diamond and my wife- so Diamond's Nathan's wife; Priscilla is my wife- and we were talking about expectations about life with God. They asked us, do we believe that things should work out, like they're going to work out? And me and Nathan said at the exact same time, “Well, no. Why would we believe that?” And I wonder, like fundamentally, when we examine what the Christian life is about and what the result of the Christian life is, and then what Jesus actually promises to people, and then how that promise gets framed downstream of colonization, downstream of capitalism, mixed with colonization, and then downstream of like Protestant ethic, which reigns in the United States,

Sy Hoekstra: The Protestant work ethic

Jonathan Walton: The Protestant work ethic, yes. I'm just like, what have I been given and how can I give it up so I can get back to what Jesus said he wanted to give in the first place? Because all of the stuff we're talking about- this whole decolonization, deconstruction, all that stuff- I feel like what I'm trying to do even throughout our conversation and dialogues is to parse through the nonsense so I can get to the King's table and sit and eat at Jesus's feet.

Sy Hoekstra: Okay. So, there's so much that we didn't talk about too, in all of these other episodes of these incredible guests that we have had. And I, you know, we will continue to do episodes like these every now and then. We also didn't, like, we've gotten some questions from you all, but we did not get to incorporate them this time. We will continue, like I said, to process things. We'll continue to incorporate things that people ask us into these episodes. So please do continue to send us questions and we haven't gotten any voice memos yet, but I would like to be able to play someone's question on a show. Maybe we don't. That's fine. People are shy. I understand. But you can send any of that stuff to shakethedust@ktfpress.com.

Again, the most, and you know, important to us, the best way that you can support this show and the work that we do on our blog and the future book projects that we're working on is by going to ktfpress.com and signing up as a subscriber. If you can't do that, please do at least sign up for the free mailing list. Follow us on social media @KTFPress on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Subscribe or follow the podcast on whatever, wherever you're listening. You know, rate and review us, do all of that stuff. It's actually helpful. I know you hear that all the time from us and probably from other podcasts, but it really does help, which is why everybody asks you to do it. So if you have a couple of minutes and you appreciate what we do, please do go and do those things.

Okay, like I said, we'll be doing more of these processing episodes in future. We're going to do probably a little bit more talking amongst the three of us in future. We'll still have plenty of great guests. We have some ones that I'm very excited about coming up and, yeah, that's all. We're going to end there.

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam.

Thank you so much for listening, and we will see you next week!

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]  

Sy Hoekstra: And he completely refuses to answer their question. Excuse me. Hang on…

Jonathan Walton: Yup.

Sy Hoekstra: Had to burp. Excuse me. [Suzie and Jonathan laugh]

Suzie Lahoud: [laughing] Please may that be the blooper! Burp break.