Friday, December 01, 2006

When suffering isn’t wrong!

My good friend, an elder of the Eastern Band Cherokee, has been an active athlete, a talented dancer and a dedicated police officer in both tribal and state police in various parts of the United States. He and his wife Gerri of 45 years have survived many difficult times including injuries on the job for him and cancer for her. They have laboured in the ministry among the Nez Perce and Colville people of Washington and Idaho since John’s retirement from the police – most often without the support of their denomination who felt they were wasting their time. They were committed to ministry in the cultural context of the people. It often meant ostracism and exclusion. His life became focused on being and living the Good News among the traditionally religious people of the two states.

These past three months John suffered a series of mini-strokes, was taken for heart surgery to repair a congenital defect which had gone undetected all his life and, finally, for brain surgery to correct an aneurism waiting to explode. It’s been a tough time in John’s life. John wrote these words to a number of us this past week:

i can hardly typei plead with HIM for healingdeep depressionjohn

Why the suffering? I’m sure that’s on of the questions lurking behind the words John was crying to communicate to us by email – an email he struggled to complete. I thought to myself, “Surely here was a person – a couple who had done all they could to serve and honour God! Why the struggle? Why the suffering?”

Anything I might say here this morning runs the risk of over-spiritualizing or under-delivering on God’s promises. It also would tend to be prescriptive and formulaic. It would seem to make each individual circumstance the same – just a matter of applying a particular formula. And, of course, that would not only make God into a cosmic bellhop, it would try to apprehend with human logic, the motives and goals of God who makes clear that “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways!”

This past summer as our family journeyed through a difficult season, I was struck with a competing series of thoughts about the situation in which I found myself:

At first I thought, “It was my dad who lived in rebellion against God – not me. So why am I seemingly reaping the consequences of his behaviour? I’ve been a good person since I came to Christ – why me!?” Then I thought, “What did we do wrong? How did we fail to serve God well? Why is this happening to us? Don’t we have enough faith??!!" I quickly moved on to, “Doesn’t God care about our lives here on earth? Is it only about heaven and God doesn’t care about us here and now?” As you might imagine, there were many, many more.

There are a few prominent theological positions about suffering. One says that anyone who experiences suffering is outside of god’s will – they have sinned and come short so they are reaping the consequence of their sin – even if it is not immediately apparent to them. Another says that suffering is the norm of life on this side of eternity and no amount of prayer or intervention with god will change it. Only when Jesus returns will we experience total relief from the suffering which has accompanied the fall.

So we come to what to ask, “What is normative for the world in which we find ourselves – the place in which we live – not yet what God has planned for it but on its way in that direction? How did the writers and authors of scripture understand the world and its suffering – how did they understand the way they were to engage with it as followers of Jesus? What did God communicate through the writers of scripture?"

Let’s start with this one:

Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, be we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
Romans 8: 17-27

How many of you have found yourselves groaning when something bad happened to you – when more than one thing after another compounded to create an intolerable and oppressive situation for days, weeks months, perhaps years on end? If we are honest with ourselves and others, this has happened more than once in our lives – for some it may describe life as an almost constant reality. More and more, it seems even teenagers, in a time of life most often characterized by youthful zeal and enthusiasm, idealism and a firm sense of “it won’t happen to me,” can experience deeply troubling and oppressive times in life; suffering seems unbearable. More than ever today, in these young lives, it goes beyond the experiences of the past, captured in such frustrated cries as: “God, why can’t I get my locker open?!”

Sacrifice, suffering. When does it begin? When does it end?

There are those who seem to think that sacrifice began and ended on the hill where Jesus died on a Roman cross. Yet the Bible inexplicably (if that were true) refers to Jesus as “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8b). Funny that Jesus should have been slain for that long. Or, is that just a literary device and the writer meant something else? On the night before his crucifixion, the bible also notes that Jesus broke bread with his followers, saying, “This is my body, which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24b). Later, taking a cup of wine, Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25b).

Did all suffering end there?

Is it restricted to one time, one place, one event, one person, never to be repeated if we but have faith?

It would seem not. There is some sort of “longer-than-just-the-present-reality” sense of Jesus’ suffering that is expected to be with us – even in us – that is not captured with the cross alone. From the beginning of time, human beings have lived by the deaths, often the suffering of others. So, when did sacrifice really begin? And, when will it end?

If I declare that sacrifice has ended or should end, then maybe I should stop eating and go on to that place where, perhaps, sacrifice is no longer needed – the life beyond this one. Maybe I should give up and die to inherit the glory. Yet even this would be sacrifice for those who I would leave behind. Paradoxically, many of us are yet afraid of and want to postpone death as long as we can. Witness the increasingly profitable cult of youth industry which pervades our society.

Vine Deloria Junior, Lakota son of an Episcopalian minister turned anti-Christian is a very well-known author and thinker. When confronted with this very thought about death and eternity (and please know that I am not advocating Deloria’s theology of eternity in this) recalled the circumstance where a TV evangelist spoke on the TV one day of God’s displeasure with him; how God had told this evangelist that if he did not raise a certain amount of money by a certain time, God would take him to heaven. He would die and leave this earth. You can imagine Vine Deloria’s amazement at such a conundrum. I mean, if heaven is to be desire and heaven is where we go when we die, why the fear of death?

When I consider Jesus’ sacrifice, his death on a Roman cross, am I asking myself, “What’s in it for me in this present life? What do I get out of this for the here-and-now? Or, am I asking God to grant strength and power that I may follow Jesus all the way – the same way he took – the way of sacrifice and suffering if need be? Some would rely on Jesus only as the great fire escape or the train ride to heaven. “I’ve got my ticket purchased and know where I’m going but I am not interested in boarding the train just now thank you. I’ll take the next one.”

It seems absurd that the follower would not experience what the master did – at least to some extent. The early church knew this and they had a well-developed, well understood theology of pain, suffering and sacrifice. That’s why they could go to their deaths singing when being martyred by the Roman emperors of the day. The had a clear understanding that this life is a portal to the next – that then journey continues beyond the grave, but without suffering, sorrow or pain. In the meantime, the earth – and we on it – groan in travail. There are those who would go so far as to say that if a person has enough faith, that person need never have to suffer, in this life or in the life to come; all sufferings having been placed already on Jesus.

But Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23b-24). I don’t think Jesus was talking here about one of those neat little crosses on the end of neck chains many people wear today – not because they are followers of Jesus but because it’s fashionable. In Jesus’ day, when a person took up a cross, that person might surely be on a one-way path to public humiliation, torture, excruciating pain and slow, agonizing death as a martyr. The people along the road – a road bordered by the crosses of such martyrs – looked at that person, and they shook their heads. That person must be particularly bad, they would think, for the Creator to allow him to die such a death.

The thing is, not one of us makes it out of this life alive. No one! Not those who shake their heads and try to imagine what evil someone else must have done to deserve such suffering; not those who think their faith is so strong that they may avoid suffering altogether. Curious that those who believe if they simply had enough faith they would not suffer any disease, die in the end of one or another of the diseases which cause death – even if it is simply death by the natural cause of aging – itself a disease of the fall.. Scripture makes clear, “it is appointed unto human beings once to die…” Yet death is simply one or another of the natural consequences of sin taking our lives. Tragic – yes!!! Real – yes!! Avoidable – not except by some intervention of God heretofore unseen.

Paul, who wrote so many of the letters that are in the New Testament, had no illusions concerning freedom from suffering in this life. For Paul, sharing in Jesus’ sufferings was present reality. We can read a summary of this man’s life in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28. With all he went through, I have no doubt but that he suffered – even something as simple (try saying that fast and it sounds better) as chronic pain which 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 seems to indicate. It is said he finally died on a Roman chopping block. And yet, Paul said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

What happened on the hill called Calvary or Golgotha or the Place of the Skull was the opening of a window into a much larger, ever-present reality: God identifies with and is present in all aspects of creation. The Creator suffers in creation. The Creator sacrifices himself within and on behalf of his creation. The scriptures make clear that not a sparrow falls apart from the Creator (Matthew 10:29 N.R.S.V.), that the hairs of our heads are numbered, that not one day’s worries go by but that he knows them. The Creator loves what has been made with a great love.

This includes you and me. When you suffer, the Creator of heaven and earth suffers with you. He suffers in you. As you make sacrifices, as you suffer, as your blood is shed, as your life is laid down, God is sacrificing himself in you so that others may live. That’s the way of creation in its as-yet- fully-unredeemed state. That’s why it groans even while it continues to provide for our needs – all the while we are abusing and damaging what was given for our life – whether human or not.

Here are some things to ponder:

Are we to remember Jesus only when taking part in a communion ceremony in a church, or should we recognize the body and blood of our Saviour in all that we eat, all that we drink, all that we do and all that we see done?

Is the Lamb slain from the creation of the world not also the deer slain by the hunter? Is he not also represented in the buffalo slain, the bear and the salmon and yes, even the whale slain – all so that people may live?

Could it be that Jesus’ broken body may also by seen in the corn and the beans and the squash pounded and ground and mashed and boiled for our nourishment and in the herbs crushed for our healing?

Is the blood of Jesus not reflected in the spring water and the berry juice as well as the communion wine?

The Canadian Blood Services commercial is a great one. It makes clear to us about this business of sacrifice that “It’s in you to give!”

Someone will say, “But wait a minute! ‘….by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’ (Hebrews 10:14). Jesus sacrifice for sin is once and for all.”

Yes, Jesus’ sacrifice is once and for all, yet in some mysterious way, we participate in that once-for-all sacrifice. Paul recognized this when he said, “….I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith….” (Philippians 2:17); and “….I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church [that the people may live]' (Colossians 1:24). and especially “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body" (2 Corinthians 4:11).

Within many traditional Native ceremonies, sacrifice is depicted and proclaimed. It’s not looked upon as payment for sin – only Jesus could do that – instead, it is seen as some small measure of giving back, of reciprocating. What do I own that I may give – my own body, my own blood? I don’t even own these. These ultimately belong to God; in the interim, these belong even more to the people around me than to me. This is in agreement with the Bible. You will suffer and you will die, yet there is no dishonour. Jesus brings honour to suffering and profound and mysterious meaning even to death. In some way which is mysterious to us, we suffer that the people may live.

“But I didn’t ask for this!” you may say. “I’d rather opt out!”

Have you heard of a man named Simon? Not Simon Peter, not Simple Simon and not even Simon Boersma but Simon who had two boys named Alexander and Rufus, Simon who saved and scrimped all his life so he could go up from Libya to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover with his Jewish people in their holy city, that’s the Simon I’m talking about. He was finally in Jerusalem for a major holiday. He couldn’t believe it. Everything was so wonderful, and then boom, a Roman soldier grabbed him and forced him to carry a cross, a cross already covered in the blood and gore of some unfortunate man he didn’t even know, of some man who must have done something terrible, according to the popular assumption, in order to deserve such a fate. I tell you just to carry a cross is to suffer, even if you’re not going to be nailed to that cross. It’s no small task. Simon didn’t ask for this, but he did it anyway (Mark 15:21-24).

Sometimes we do things reluctantly. Suffering may not be fully our choice, yet it happens to us, and God the father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are there, with us, in the suffering, giving meaning, giving honour, even to the point of bringing life from death. And when we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for, the Spirit of the Creator prays for us with groans too deep for words to express.

As Red Green says, “We’re all in this together.” All creation is a reluctant participant in suffering. All creation groans as in the pains of childbirth. “What do you mean?” you say.

Think of it this way. A mother sacrifices. She sheds her blood, she risks her life, she suffers and she groans. She brings new life into the earth. A baby is born, and the mother looks back to see all her sufferings as unworthy to be compared with the glory of this new and perfect little life. Isn’t that a wonder? Isn’t that a mystery? In many ways, the earth – the rest of creation is our mother – not in the pantheistic sense in which some often treat Native understandings of such things. But in the simple ways in which the earth brought forth all life as we see it in the rest of creation it also gave birth to us as God took the dust of the ground and brought us to life. The creation continues to die to bring us life – many times unnecessarily. As it does so, it groans in the pains of childbirth.

As you consider Jesus’ sacrifice, do you find yourself asking, “What’s in it for me? What do I get out of this?” or are you asking our Creator to grant you strength and power to follow after him all the way. And, do you follow in such a way that you bring life from suffering or do you bring suffering in the midst of life.

How far are you willing to follow Jesus? Will you shed your blood in the earth? Will you lay down your life that people may live?

Some additional thoughts from scripture:

ü Scripture makes clear that there are times – perhaps many – where we suffer according to the will of God. Peter says it this way: "But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” 1 Peter 3:14

It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 1 Peter 3:17

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. 1 Peter 4:1

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 1 Peter 4:12-16

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. 1 Peter 4:19

Last night I watched Snow Walker – about a girl and a guy – an Inuit girl and a white guy – a pilot – who crash in the Arctic. Throughout the movie it is obvious that she, suffering from TB gives her life through great suffering to bring the man to life – not just physical life but also spiritual and moral.

Did she suffer for no reason – or was her suffering necessary that he might have life?

Jumping to conclusions that she was just a poor ignorant Inuit girl doing by instinct what it took to survive minimizes her sacrifice. The idea that “If she just knew Jesus, this would not have happened,” trivializes life – hers and ours – and makes God seem a cruel practical joker. And that, is not the God of the bible and definitely not the God I know. Besides, maybe she did know Jesus!! by Terry Leblanc


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