the good news in hard places

[Jesus] went to nazareth…and on the sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. and he stood up to read. the scroll of the prophet isaiah was handed to him. unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

the Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them,”today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

luke 4:17-20

last week i had the privilege of hanging out with some friends who are part of center for transforming mission up in tacoma.   it is a long story how it all came about, but it was one of those weird moments where it becomes clear that somehow, some way, you’re “supposed” to know some of these people.  these folks have been in the trenches a long, long time with people in hard, hard, hard places, mainly in urban & youth contexts around the world.  it is funny because in my typical “i am not sure if i really belong” ways i kept thinking “but the hard places i am at is the suburbs & that doesn’t really count because it’s not the ‘real deal’ of the inner city.”   but as the days unfolded it was blaringly clear–our issues & struggles with working on the margins are pretty much the same.  the intensity of what it means to actually live incarnationally in the tough & brutal places of real people’s lives is our common thread. and een though it all looks a little different, we’re all in the same crazy boat.

a question that CTM asks a lot is “where is the good news in hard places?” at face value, we can just skim over it and give it a trite “Jesus is in all the hard places!” answer.  but if we take a little closer look, i think it becomes a powerful & scary question.  you see, i think it’s easy to talk about the good news in the average life of the average 1st world christian.  we can attribute being “blessed” with a car & a house & a job & kids & a cool church & the land of opportunity to God.  we are thankful that the good news brought more hope and purpose and meaning into a life that would have not been nearly as full without it.

the gospel of hope, the good news, is for all people in all places. the poor, the broken, the needy, the desperate, the sick, the struggling, the hurting, the spiritually bankrupt, the humbled–not just in my backyard but around the world, people of all shapes and sizes and colors and experiences, this is who the good news was for.  the problem is that sometimes in this crazy mixed up world, the good news is just plain harder to see. we have come to associate “blessing” with tangible things that equate to relief & ease.  i think the prosperity gospel has tried to hijack the true message of Jesus, the bearer of good news who made it clear that in this world we’d have much trouble because of our faith & not a smooth ride, that amassing stuff was a waste of time, and humbling ourselves to the lowest places following his example was more important than gaining power & success in the world’s (and also the church’s) eyes.  over and over in the scriptures Jesus talks about the ways of the kingdom being harder, but that in the midst God’s presence would bring hope & healing & light into the deepest darkness. i am not dismissing that God works in all kinds of ways & one of the ways he brings hope to the hungry is through actual food, as in real-true-blue-rice-and-beans, but i also have to reckon with the reality of this broken world that there are many many many people starving to death right now and no food is coming.  what’s the good news for them?

where’s the good news in the garbage dump in guatemala city, where thousands of men, women & children live?  where’s the good news to the life-in-prison gang banger? where’s the good news to the woman who was just sexually assaulted? where’s the good news when the baby you dreamed for and started to love dies inside you? where’s the good news when your husband just beat the crap out of you and hid the car keys & all your money? where’s the good news when your company just went bankrupt and you lost your job and can’t feed your family? where’s the good news when you hear the words “i want a divorce.”?  where’s the good news in an AIDS orphanage in africa? where’s the good news in the midst of debilitating mental illness that isn’t going to go away with the perfect pharmaceutical cocktail?

don’t for a minute think i am going to try to answer this question with something simple. i don’t think it’s possible.  but there’s no doubt in my mind that somehow the good news is present in the hardest of places.  Jesus came for the sick. he mingled with lepers. he dined with the outcasts.  he made himself the lowest of the low & subjected himself to torture and cruelty.  in this scripture from luke 4/isaiah 61 (one of my all time favs!), he makes clear his purpose.  almost everything about Jesus’ ministry in the gospels was the incarnation of the good news in hard places.

i don’t live in the projects, the slums, or an orphanage. i will never be able to presume to know exactly what that feels like when i lay may head down on my soft fluffy pillow in my nice house in the burbs.  but my faith requires me to reckon with their reality and never for a minute dismiss the pain & struggle of my brothers and sisters in hard places.  in my current life i am exposed to the unseen dark places of the suburbs.  so where is it, where is the good news in hard places?  i am certain my response is incomplete, but i can say that it seems like the good news is found in a strange combination of God’s supernatural spirit at work & the tangible presence of people. we can’t take care of how God will move, but we do know that  Jesus called us to love tangibly.  1 john 3:18 reminds us: “dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” this is why it feels so important in all kinds of ways that as christ-followers we become people willing to go to the darkest of darkest of places with others, no matter where that place happens to be in terms of world geography.

we can impose what we think is good news in hard places but the truth is only people in those places can really say.  if i take stock of the words i have heard over the years & from my own experience in my own hard and dark places, here’s the thing that seems to ring the most true:  “God has reminded me through people that he hasn’t abandoned me in the midst of my darkest hours.  even when it felt like it.  even when everything indicated that he had.   i somehow knew i wasn’t alone. i saw little slivers of light here and there and they sustained me.”

no neat & tidy wraps on this one, i just wanted to toss out the thought & as always, i love to hear from you.  to me, the good news is God’s hope in places where there seems to be none.  that is why i believe so strongly in the supernatural ways of Jesus–i have seen and tasted and experienced and heard of glimpses of hope in situations where it seems that there absolutely, positively should not be any.  those glimpses help me believe.  they help remind me, yes, some how, some way, the good news is present in hard, hard, hard places. 

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

25 Comments

  • Hi Kathy,
    I would like to ask you a question back. You said “Jesus came for the sick. he mingled with lepers. he dined with the outcasts. he made himself the lowest of the low & subjected himself to torture and cruelty” What did He give them?

    Reply
  • Thank you again, Kathy.

    You express yourself beautifully and profoundly.

    The churning inside continues!

    Matt

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  • I am pulling my hair out in frustration here!!!!!!!

    Surely this is not, can not be all that there is to being a Jesus person!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Going thru a tough time here Mrs. E! I am FRUSTRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATED!

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  • my heart is so with you.

    the good news is not in things or even situations. it’s not more present in some places than others like we try to pretend it is. the good news just is. it exists apart from everything tangible. it supercedes all variables and exists no matter the external factors.

    the good news IS a spiritual thing. the good news is we were made for something more than we are right now…. I always feel that yearning that, “I was made for something more” — and for so long, I thought in my heart & mind that the something more would be recognized by external things – things able to be seen/touched/felt…. and when I realized that I WAS “meant for something bigger” referred to an inside thing. an unseen spiritual change FIRST then everything changed. the yearning for something more turned into thankfulness for having heard the good news and accepted it. God’s presence & the peace of knowing Him was almost overwhelming.

    I was able to recognize & at least start on the path to crushing the idols I had held on dearly to for so long. the things I focused on above Him. idol of people and them liking me. idol of validation from others. idol of myself. idol of power. idol of recognition. idol of morality.

    I was able to recognize that the outside world isn’t always a reflection of the inside. then when I was able to recognize our value apart from the external factors — I really believe that’s when I first starting loving people. my first steps to being able to see beyond the external things to how God sees us. to be soul-focused.

    BUT wow do I have so far to go. I really believe I’m at the beginning stage of understanding the first part of the good news.

    but now the questions on my heart are….why then have I been so externally blessed for so long? cuz God knows I’m a wuss? or maybe it’s because blessings are trickling down from my grandparents who loved the Lord & loved and gave to His people so much above themselves? or maybe it’s beecause I am so thankful each time He gives me think? I have so much appreciation for what He’s given me and I praise Him and thank Him for it? my blessings don’t make me more valuable — but why did I get them and others didn’t?

    and also — my other questions right now are — I know that external suffering is not always an indicator of a sin in our life. I know it’s not an always a consequnce of anything we did or didn’t do…. and I know that external blessings are not always a sign that we’re on the right track..

    BUT are external blessings/ suffering SOMETIMES because consequnces of our action? Yes I do believe that’s true. I believe that because of Jesus our sin leaves us no ETERNAL consequences…. but I DO believe our sin (or lack of) does have consequences for us here. I believe it keeps us from His blessings— both spiritual & external blessings. where does it say that in the Bible. I don’t know.

    but ultimately external/physical whatever you want to call them situations whether it be blessings or sufferings are not always consequences of our own actions — they are not indicators of the inside of a person at all — like the “whats in the bunny post”…. and because we use them as indicators we become prideful & condmening/critical of others or discouraged & resentful dependent on what’s happening.

    but ultimately we just shouldn’t even bother judging a person by their situation — we should take our eyes off them and on Him. and let Him do the judging and us focusing on the good and assuming the best in each other.

    I hope I made SOME sense.

    phew.

    I loved this post though – I have to reflect on this more. be back. my comment might not have had ANYTHING to do with your post… but it’s just my heart’s response to what you wrote. sorry for such a long comment 🙁

    but thanks for you 🙂

    Reply
  • Kathy,

    This post touches on a question I was asking myself this morning. I was reading a book by the Cloud/Townsend duo, in a section about the Roles of God, Roles of people. Their first point is: “God’s role was to be the source or provider; our role was to depend on the source”. They propose that “we have to depend on him [God] for life and provision”. Maybe they were talking about spiritual provision, but I couldn’t help think about “physical” provision as well. And when I thought of that I wondered, what does this mean for people who live in war zones, or areas of famine. How is God providing provision for them? Maybe from my 1st world up-bringing, I am thinking of good food, not food found in the garbage dump. I am thinking that if our roles were reversed after the Garden of Eden and God sent Jesus to reconcile us to himself, then why are people still digging in the garbage dump. Why are we still here? If God can deal with us now, why are we still here…on the outside of the Garden of Eden. Is the Garden of Eden what we are striving to get back into? Maybe I’m supposed to read that story more metaphorically, but I prefer to think of it literally. Just me. I guess that’s the idealistic side of my personality.

    Thanks,

    Lisa

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  • Lisa and Kathy, your posts on this topic reminds me of a favorite poem:

    These spiritual window-shoppers,
    who idly ask, ‘How much is that?’ Oh, I’m just looking.
    They handle a hundred items and put them down,
    shadows with no capital.

    What is spent is love and two eyes wet with weeping.
    But these walk into a shop,
    and their whole lives pass suddenly in that moment,
    in that shop.

    Where did you go? “Nowhere.”
    What did you have to eat? “Nothing much.”

    Even if you don’t know what you want,
    buy something, to be part of the exchanging flow.

    Start a huge, foolish project,
    like Noah.

    It makes absolutely no difference
    what people think of you.

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  • Check out: http://www.justinpeters.org and be sure to watch “demo.” He gives the “prosperity” gospel clarity and he speaks from a position many of can’t as he lives to glorify God in his life with the condition of cerebral palsy.

    Reply
  • abmo – i rely on what Jesus said he brought in the gospels. hope. life, now. new life, later. healing. a reminder that this world wasn’t the end of the story. that freedom was possible in the midst of being a slave. the promise that even though he would no longer be with them that the comforter would come, God the holy spirit, to guide and be present always. so what did he bring them? God in the flesh. the good news. and i am thankful he is still doing that today. what are some of your thoughts or maybe a better question is what prompted your question?

    matt – yeah, i am churning with these thoughts, too, in a really good way!

    pops – i am confused, you will have to clarify? i am not limiting Jesus’ power in any way shape or form, in fact, just the opposite – my point is that somehow God is so big, the good news so powerful, that he manages to show up in the darkest of darkest places. i am just expressing one piece that i have been thinking a lot about–how it is easy to see the good news in blessing and it is sometimes harder to see in the darkness. but that the beautiful and glorious part of our God is that he is relentness in his pursuit of his people, that he reveals himself in all kinds of ways that are completely unexplainable, that he saves us & rescues us and and that often he uses his people to be the carrier of the good news. help me with your frustration so i understand a little bit more why you are bugged 🙂

    randi – oh so much here that you shared. i think there’s all kinds of things that we will never fully understand about God and his ways and i will always just rest a bit on isaiah 55 on that one. but i do keep coming down to what the good news means for me, what it means for others. thanks for always sharing your heart here, randi!

    lisa – so many deep and overwhelming thoughts of how the crazy ways of God. so much mystery and things we can probably not squeeze down into a neat and tidy package like some have wanted to do. i do rest in the reality that genesis 3 is in full force & it helps explain just how messed up this all became. and i am consistently reminded that the Good News is fully present in the midst, somehow, some way. this conversation is definitely one worth continuing in person, see you wednesday!

    sage – beautiful. where is that from?

    CLS – thanks for stopping by & for sharing the link, i’ll check it out.

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  • As always, the real deal. Even though sometimes in most rebellious 😉 of days, when I don’t want to admit that He has been present in my darkest, most empty places, I can’t honestly deny the truth. I would have not made it this far alive without His hope, without a shadow of a doubt. 🙂

    Seeing as my personal heartbeat is now in helping others through the grief journey, I know that a lot of this hard stuff has to be honestly & unabashedly dealt with, and that really, each person has to reconcile on his/her own. How we do so can change the trajectory of our lives, and that is evident in all of our relationships. Suffering is so so so complex, and I could spend days talking about the process, but for now, I will say thanks for validating things that many circles wouldn’t dare touch. <3

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  • Hiya Kathy!

    Not knocking what you are saying at all, sorry if it came over that way.

    In fact on an intellectual level I agree with what you are saying – and I can quote the scriptures to back it up.

    In reality though, well that is a different story!

    Good news in nice places – yeah, when we need rain and it rains – Wow, look how God has blessed us and answered our prayers!

    But when I pray for my friend with cancer and my friend still dies? Why did He not answer that prayer? Did my friends wife and children not deserve Dads continued presence more than a bit of rain?

    When we are trying to do things in our community and the finances just dry up and everything you try in order to raise more finance just falls apart and you lose more than you started with – why did He not answer those prayers?

    Sure, I can quote the “All things work for the good…” scripture but after quoting, if I am honest with myself I still have a question – did we really have to go thru all that in order to achieve some future “good” from those things?

    Surely if He showed up and answered prayers in the hard places it would be more of a witness to the world out there? But when He shows up in the nice places, much of it can be put down to coincidence or natural causes and people still walk away asking “Is there really a God?”

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  • Sure Kathy. Hopefully we’ll have time to discuss it on Wednesday. If not, I’ll try to remember to bring it up on Sunday. My long term memory is shot with stress this week:)

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  • the Good News is for the hard places … I think.

    The Christian niche churches of the west function more as fraternities than they do as the Body of Christ. Cheap grace in a consumer driven church getting the spiritual goods we want at the least cost to ourselves – this is not the Good News

    Jesus not only Savior of the soul BUT also Savior of the body and cosmos as well – now there’s Good News.

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  • Pops, that is one of the most difficult questions. I appreciate your honesty. It doesn’t make sense to me either from that point of view. So the question of ‘is there really a God’, I answer, no, not that kind of God. Even though I do believe in miracles, I don’t think that God shows up as primarily the exception to the laws of physics and nature.
    The way I experience God most thoroughly is as the redeemer of all things, the one who brings love and inspires hope in all points in our individual life stories. I think that while God does not wish us to suffer, the fact of existence means that we do. What is ultimately important is living out and within God’s redemptive power, in whatever circumstance our story finds us in.

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  • Turn a corner in those ‘hard places’ and the cosmic Christ appears in the homeless person asking for a cup of coffee. Space is constanly interrupted by Christ Himself in those hard places, who appears in the person of the weakest, those who are hungry, those who are thirsty …

    I am glad I no longer serve the GNP of the consumer driven church but have been called to those hard places where there is Light if only the blind would open their eyes.

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  • I’ve been thinking….this really comes down to the sovereignty / free will differences I guess, right? Is He controlling everything? Does He cause things or just allow them? Why do people suffer? when we do suffer and if it’s from the devil… do we have power through Him to ‘get rid’ of suffering we’re going through if it is from the devil?

    So many questions.

    God cares so much more about our spiritual health than our flesh needs & wants right? All the things we tend to focus on ultimately are temporary – He is more concerned about our spiritual health – which is eternal right? BUT Jesus took care of both…. do we have access to that power?

    I don’t think God causes suffering to us ever. I don’t think anything bad comes from God. I think only good can originate from Him. but I do believe He is sovereign and He allows things to happen. things happen beacuse direct consequences of our sin and sometimes indirectly to us just because we get swooped up in the fallen world evil/bad.

    so I don’t believe it’s so much that He CAUSES suffering to strengthen us, increase or faith, etc. etc…. BUT I do believe that when bad things DO happen He will use it for our good. It’s sort of like — well this isn’t the way He would want it to be – but since it’s happenign – He’ll turn it around for good. Romans 8:28. but if those bad things did NOT happen – He would still find ways to increase our faith — so it’s not like He can only strengthen through struggle…. He can do anything, use anything….

    <> sorry for taking up so much time again.

    just so many thoughts 🙂

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  • stacy – i think that is what is wild about God, that there’s something sort of undeniable that we can’t escape from & that is somehow God’s presence in the midst of the hardest of places. i am so glad you will be one of those people bringing love & hope to some folks who need it so desperately; that is your zone 🙂

    pops – okay i was confused, sorry, i thought you were saying the opposite. i guess we’re agreeing more than i thought? i never for a minute wanted to sound trite & be one of those people that says “oh, the answer is simple, Jesus!” i do think the moments you are describing are perfect examples of my point: where is the good news there? how can we see it, feel it, trust it, notice it, believe it? it is hard. i think harder than some of us want to admit but at the same time, i have no doubt it’s real and true and evident around the world, around our neighborhoods, but maybe only in glimpses that are so hard to recognize. peace & strength to you in the work that you do in hard places…

    lisa – an impromptu theology pub is sounding good right about now, maybe in a couple of weeks at olde town arvada?

    minnow – you are always so kind. i wish you had written it, too, so i didn’t 🙂 sometimes it does really feel like putting so much out there all the time and eventually i am wondering if people will think i am just a broken record!

    mark r – amen!!!

    sage – thanks as always for jumping into the conversation & sharing your perspectives

    randi – lots here…i do believe this is such a huge reason why people struggle with God because if he’s good, then how can all this suffering be so present? and if it’s a consequence of other people’s sin (i’ll use africa as an example), that is even more painful. i do not believe any neat and tidy thing will reconcile any of it. i think that’s the mystery of faith & so much of what i am trying to communicate here, that beyond pain, beyond hunger, beyond suffering, beyond darkness there is this light, this hope, this love, this peace, this comforter, this redeemer–The Good News. thanks for always really chewing on this stuff! i am, too.

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  • Hmm… the Good News, to me, has mostly always been that He is there. That sounds trite, maybe, but let me explain. I was molested starting at an early age – not sure when it began, but I remember when it stopped. My parents were not good at the comfort and nurture thing. I grew up wanting to run away. Started to three times, but something always brought me back. I grew up feeling unwanted, unwelcome, in the way, inadequate, used, contaminated, discarded – all before I ever hit high school. By the way, this was all in middle class suburbia – within the church – parents, grandparents where church leaders. The good news to me in this was that God has always been there. Not in the churchy ways that christianized people think. But in dead of the night tears and fears, comfort to hold onto there. Speaking to me in the words of a pop song. talking to me in my dreams. Real and present, even when I thought He was disappointed in me and only tolerated me because He had to (says a lot about my parents, that). The good news is that He stayed with me through anger, rebellion, and a great deal of crap in my adult life, including an attempted suicide. He has walked me into therapy, into recognizing what was done to me and what that did to me so that that can get fixed. And most importantly, to me, the good news right now is that He does not hate me – He actually likes me. He is my Father – Papa – and He likes me. That is the good news to me.

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  • Yesterday I had to go to a part of town in the capital of Honduras that I do NOT feel comfortable in visiting. Narrow streets, slum buildings, glue sniffers,beggars, street kids, pick pockets . . . and I couldn’t leave out of courtesy to my host, and the leading I think of the Spirit. I found grace. And I found Jesus there in the heart of believers who actually work and live in this part of town. Then I remembered that God’s grace shines best in dark places. I was able to relax and enjoy being with some really great people, who are taking the God’s light with them everyday to some very dark places.

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  • This is a post that makes you go….hmmmm.

    I believe the good news are in the hard places. The thing is…..it’s easier to see the good news when all is well verses when your world around you seems to be falling apart.

    In those times when you are dwelling in that dark place, you may not see any good news at all. Because the situations that are at hand can make you blind to all hope, joy, peace, & etc. That’s why God sends someone or a group of people to shed some light on the subject…some good news, if you will.

    It is not God’s will for us to live in poverty, to not have hope, to lose you sense of identity. God said, “He will never leave you or forsake you.”

    A lot things people experience are from generation curses. Generation curses can put you in such a dark place, until it seems like there’s no way out. It’s sad that we have to suffer from what our great, great, great grandaddy/grandmother did. There is no good news in generation curses. But the good news is when we come to the realization (where its through a person God sent your way, a message you heard at church, or a book on someone’s testimony) that we have the authority to destroy all generation curses.

    There are so many factors to consider to where the good news dwell. But the bottom line is, the word is the true living word….it is the great news. We are not going to understand all the whys and why nots and all the haves and have nots. One thing is for sure God thoughts and ways are higher than ours. As Jer. 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

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  • pops – got it, are praying for you guys…

    randi – 🙂

    ellen – thanks for the encouragement. it helps to know that people are reading so thanks for taking the time to remind me. hope everything is going well up in AK with your community…i’d love to hear more

    katherine – thanks for always sharing your heart and journey. i think you are one of the people i had in my mind when i wrote this in the general sense. your story helps me believe. it’s a remarkable and beautiful and mysterious thing to recognize that in the darkest of darkest of darkest of situations and circumstances that somehow, someway Jesus creeps into the crevices and brings love & hope.

    minnow – thanks for always chewing on this stuff in such deep & meaningful ways. keep writing!

    laurie – it is interesting because when i was at the CTM gathering i thought of you! i need to connect you with joel who is doing some stuff in honduras, i will email you with it when i get back into town. thanks for sharing this glimpse into what it looks like to be in a dark place and somehow feel Jesus’s peace.

    toia – thanks so much for stopping by. how did you come across the carnival? i appreciate your thoughts here. i so agree with you “it is the great news…we are not going to understand all the whys and why nots and all the haves and have nots.”

    Reply

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