With the upcoming Mockingbird Mini-Conference only fifty days away (!) I wanted to start a series of posts familiarizing everyone with the conference theme and why we chose it, sort of a preview of what my talk will entail, and one that I’m hoping will grab you (and convince you to register ASAP).

I’ve come to understand in my own life that the deep substratum that trumps all other categories of human identity is suffering. We all suffer. And this conference seeks to reach people on that level. Let me explain:

One morning last Spring, a member of my Sunday school class came up to me after class with a pointed question. He said, “I understand all that you’re saying, but it still doesn’t answer a pressing question that weighs on my heart: why does God allow suffering?”

And I did what most of us would probably do when faced with that question. I immediately launched into a very logical, cogent theological argument. And by the time I made it to my car I was kicking myself, because I knew that I had handled it the wrong way.

When a person asks a question like, “why do we suffer,” or “why does God allow suffering,” that person is asking a question of the heart. And a question of the heart is a question born out of feelings, not out of rational thought. So a rational, logical answer won’t work. It can’t get past the heart’s defenses and speak to a person where he or she is suffering.

And so this Mini-Conference theme is an attempt to speak to the heart from the heart. For my part, I’m going to use some of my own experiences with suffering to speak not from the head, but from the heart. And I want to start laying the groundwork for this by establishing the premise that suffering is universal. I came to understand this in a very unexpected way years ago.

My grandfather died in 1992. It was my first experience with suffering and grief. I was 22 at the time and was working at a college job in a steel fabrication shop. On this particular morning at work, the secretary called me to the office because my mother was on the phone. She had telephoned to tell me that my grandfather had died instantly of a heart attack that morning and was alone on his daily walk when he died.

So a man who had loved me unconditionally, who had been a glimpse in my life of what God the Father’s love for us must surely look like, was now unexpectedly cut off, without me even having had the chance to say good-bye. And in an instant the world of my youth was erased and replaced by a new and unfamiliar landscape in which my loved ones were not permanent, a world in which death would now be part of the reality.

And my young heart broke into pieces at that moment. I couldn’t stop openly sobbing, which worried me greatly as I walked back onto the shop floor. It was going to be extremely uncomfortable for me to cry in front of these big, burly welders and machinists that I worked with, but I couldn’t stop. I thought through my tears that I would probably have to quit my job immediately or forever be known as “the shop cry baby”.

Instead though, while I was on the phone with my mother, the secretary had let the shop foreman know what had happened and he had told the men, so that when they saw me unable to stop crying, they couldn’t help themselves: they began to cry with me.

And it was in that moment, without a single word spoken, that I realized that each of these men had also known suffering in their lives, that they knew what I was experiencing in that moment, that they knew what it means to hurt, and I knew that I was not at all alone in this new and unfamiliar landscape. All of them had suffered loss in their lives. They could relate to what I was going through. Suffering is truly that universal.

We hope you will join us November 19-20 in Pensacola, Florida for an entire conference on this subject. Speakers will include Paul Zahl, David Browder, John Zahl and Jeff Hual.

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