Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Suffering and suffering . . .

     I had intended this week to be like nearly everyone else who is using the RCL to preach on the idea of Christian Unity.  I settled on that Monday of this week and was sort of excited that we would have an interesting twist to the discussion.  I expected that we would be able to discuss how Jesus’ prayer for our unity has not been answered even within this parish in this particular denomination.  Because it was Youth Sunday and because we were expecting some visitors, I expected to have people in church this am from TEC, from ACNA, and from the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.  Forget the sheer number of denominational expressions out there.  Three different testimonies from within one denomination that Jesus’ prayer for us has not been answered.  That is a pastoral problem of some significance, is it not?  We were going to be chewing through some theological steak, rather than milk and gruel.
     Alas, my mind was changed as I slipped into the office earlier this week.  I had a few opportunities to sneak in and out and do some work as we worked our way through promotion and graduation week in the McVey household.  During one of my drop-in’s, a gentleman left the AA meeting and came to see me.  He wanted to know if I had a moment.  I invited him into my office and we began to talk.  “Jim” sat down next to the picnic basket and began to share how his life was a mess.  Truthfully, the story was not that unusual.  His wife had finally had it up to here and kicked him out of the house.  She was tired of the cost of his drinking.  He had forgotten to pick up his kids from school events because he was more interested in the bars than what his kids were doing.  He had spent the family into economic hardship.  They were by no means rich, but his drinking meant that bills went unpaid.  His parents had basically disowned him.  Her parents had been encouraging her to leave him for some time — in truth, he blamed them more than his drinking for the upcoming divorce.  His drinking had cost him a couple jobs.  He was proud that he had never been drunk on the job, but he had overslept a few times and been sluggish because of hangovers.  Friends and family had encouraged him for years to get help, but he thought he had it under control.  It was only when she told him she wanted the divorce and kicked him out that he realized he had hit bottom.
     Whether he has hit bottom yet is up for debate.  Over the last few years I have seen too many people swear they are going to get sober when a spouse or significant other left them.  I do not know that any have successfully gotten sober.  I asked Jim what I could do for him, other than pray.  He wanted to know if I could talk to his wife and to him.  There are Baptists and Roman Catholic and Methodists in this AA group and they all told Jim that I do a decent job of discussing God in their own language.  Jim laughed that if I could get that ragtag group to agree on something, well maybe I could help him.  When I asked what church he and his wife attended, he confessed that they did not attend.  When I asked what church they had attended as youths, he knew his denomination but not that of his wife.  I told him that I was willing to meet with his wife and him, but that I doubted it would do much good.  He was, understandably, crushed.  I told him I thought his wife was doing the best she could to protect the children and herself.  I asked him how many times had she heard this was it for the drinking come out of his mouth?  Jim said lots and lots.  Why should she expect this time to be any different than those before?  He had no answer but tears.
     We spent probably 20 minutes or so talking about the reasons he had given her not to believe he would ever quit drinking.  There had been an emotional cost and a financial cost to his drinking.  Somehow, he had avoided the legal costs.  I suggested to Jim that the best way to convince his wife that this was different was to work on himself.  “Maybe if you managed to get and stay sober and to deal with those issues which led to your drinking, she might see the Jim she fell in love with so long ago and cancel the divorce.  But you have to want to do this for yourself, first.  Doing it for your wife and kids has not worked out for you in the past.”  Jim said I was echoing the same thoughts as those in this meeting and at others around the Quad-Cities.  “Maybe you should think about listening to those who have walked your path before you.”
     “I just wanted you, you know, to say a magic prayer and make everything alright.”  I told him that God sometimes acts quickly and decisively like that, but usually one has to be truly penitent and contrite.  And even then, it has been my experience that the Lord works over time.  We talked a bit more and then I offered to pray for him.  He thanked me as he rose and headed back to his meeting.  As he was drifting out the door, he said I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how this suffering is in God’s plan.  
     “I beg your pardon?” I asked as he worked to get back to his meeting.
     You know, God makes us suffer as part of His plan.  That’s how we know we are His children, because we we suffer.
     “Who told you that?” I asked.
     I don’t really know.  I just remember sitting in church as a kid and hearing the preacher tell me that whenever I suffered, it was part of God’s plan.
     I invited him to return to the chair.  “Remember when I explained that you and your wife and I spoke a different vocabulary, that I took for granted some things about God and His call on His disciples than you two probably did?”  He nodded.  “This is one of those biggies.”  What followed was basically a discussion about suffering.  Since Peter’s letter dealt with the fiery ordeal, I even had an Order of Worship for Jim to use.  I won’t go into much more detail, for fear of putting you to sleep.  Suffice it to say, Jim left understanding that God did not intend for us to suffer and that suffering itself needed to be discerned, before we take any comfort in it.
     One of the significant questions which plague disciples of Christ is the nature of suffering.  Why is it happening to me?  What purpose does it serve?  How can my suffering ever be redeemed?  We have talked at times how some Christians do a disservice to people by representing that believers have no problems, no issues, no sufferings in their lives.  New converts realize such an understanding is a lie, often fairly quickly after their conversion.  When they realize that they still have problems, they often decide the Christian was full of crap and fall quickly away.  We do an equally bad job for Christians, and moreso for those who watch such Christians in their lives, when we equate their suffering with God’s plan.  Ever heard that type of sentiment expressed?  I am so sorry for your loss, but God just needed another angel.  I am so sorry for your miscarriage, but you just need to trust this was part of God’s plan.  I am so sorry for your job loss, but God gave you this for a reason.  I am so sorry for your cancer, but God never gives you more than you can handle.  I tell you all, as a pastor, that makes me want to scream as much as the pollyannish version of the Gospel.
     Think about the God we are describing when we say such things.  God needs another servant.  God wants you to feel His pain over losing a child.  God wanted you stressed about provision.  God wanted you crushed.  They are horrible, unworthy sentiments.  If you are accustomed to saying such nonsense outside my hearing, stop now.  Don’t.  Do your loved one and God a favor and zip it.
     Peter, in his letter, is addressing a congregation that is undergoing suffering.  Their suffering was, likely, similar to our own.  Certainly, some were worried about provision.  Others were likely worried about health.  Maybe some were worried about family members or loved ones in the legion.  Unlike us, all were worried that their neighbors or co-workers or customers might discover they were Christian.  Such a discovery could lead to forfeiture, enslavement, and even death.  Probably, they had relationship issues.  Maybe their were some who even suffered from addictions.  They likely came to church with the same burdens and loads with which we come to church or with which those who come to this building seeking deliverance from addiction.
    Suffering in the Bible is described generally in one of two ways.  There is the suffering that God allows us to experience because of our sins, and there are sufferings that God allows us to experience because it serves His redemptive purposes.  The key to understanding the place of suffering in Peter’s teaching and in the life of the disciple is in that little phrase “insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings.”  All of us suffer in life.  The key is figuring out whether our suffering is redemptive or consequential.  Put in our language, the key to figuring out our suffering is discernment.
     For the gentleman who came into my office this week, his suffering was not redemptive.  He walked away from God.  He chose alcohol over our Lord’s love and mercy.  He cheated on his wife.  He chose to drink rather than work properly for at least two employers.  He abandoned his kids emotionally and, at least a couple times, physically by not keeping his responsibilities.  He lied to his wife, his parents, her parents, and who knows who else.  The suffering he is experiencing this week is not a sharing in Christ’s sufferings.  These are some of the consequences of his behavior; these are some of the consequences of his sins.  God never wanted him to abandon his wife, abandon his children, walk apart from Him, and pretty much let alcohol destroy all that he valued.  Our Lord only wanted good for Jim, but Jim chose poorly.  He chose to do things his way rather than God’s.  We should mourn with Jim.  We should be empathetic to Jim and others like him.  But we should never suggest that God wanted him or them to do this kind of stuff and experience the consequences of their sins.  We should never let them absolve themselves of the consequences because God dishes out tons of suffering to teach us a lesson.  God often does let us experience the consequences of our sins because, quite frankly, that is the only way we ever seem to learn.  But even when He allows the consequences to bear fruit in our lives, His grace often prevents us from experiencing the full fruit of our sins.  Jim is rightfully hurting right now, but I think God’s grace has been at work in his life.  His liver seems fully functional.  He has managed to avoid killing people despite a habit of drunk driving.  His wife has done a remarkable job with the kids.  Things could have been way worse.
     I cannot begin to list the suffering that many of us here today have experienced because of our own sins.  But many of us have had these talks.  Like Jim, some of us understand the consequences of addiction or of divorce.  Some of us have experienced the consequences of “impulse buying” on credit.  Some of us have experienced the health consequences of not taking care of our physical bodies, even though we proclaim it is our temple for God.  Some of us have earned the distrust of others through lying, stealing, abuse, and the like.  Others of us have earned anything but respect by being snarky, rather than edifying, to others.  Some of us have earned enmity within our families because we have not protected our children the way Jim’s wife tried.  Our list goes on and on.  We know our failures and the consequence of them.
     Contrast those against what Peter is describing here, the “sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”  Our Lord suffered despite never sinning.  Jesus hints at the glory which He set aside to come down from heaven in our reading from John today.  Can you imagine giving up such a magnificent existence?  Jesus was slapped and spit upon and had His beard pulled out by the whiskers despite never mocking another human being or showing them anything but His love of the Father.  Can you imagine being teased for doing that which you were called to do?  He was put to death on a cross for our sins, despite never once sinning Himself.  Can you imagine the love He must have felt for each of us to be willing to face such a death?  Jesus is the ultimate suffering servant of God found in Isaiah.
     As men and women and boys and girls redeemed by Him and sharing in His eternal inheritance, we ought not be too surprised to find ourselves sharing in His ministry here on earth.  Sometimes, we as Christians, suffer because our faith in God through the Lord Jesus Christ.  Think of the suffering of that Sudanese woman and her family.  Her Muslim father abandons her as a baby, and she gets the death sentence, after having her marriage annulled,  for being raised as a Christian and, in turn, raising her children as Christian.  Of course, in a wonderful show of mercy, they “allowed” her to give birth, with her legs shackled, before they imposed the sentence on her.  Think of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and sold as child brides to “good Muslim husbands.”  The group reportedly targeted the girls because they were Christians being educated by Christians.  They did nothing wrong other than go to school.  What about the gentleman in the Iranian prison?  What of the villagers in Sierra Leone?  What of our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt who, because of what we call the “Arab Spring,” face eviction and death threats on a repeated basis?  See the difference?  They are suffering simply because they try to follow the Lord Christ.  Their suffering is the suffering of the Servant of God.
     Just as we experience consequences of our own sins, we sometimes experience the suffering of the Suffering Servant.  Some of us have been denied promotions or employment simply because of our faith.  Some of us have been mocked and ridiculed specifically because of our faith.  Sometimes we get the cancers even though we did not smoke or pollute.  Sometimes we bear the physical results of a crash even though we did not run the red light.  Sometimes those in rebellion against God pervert justice and use the tools of justice to enforce unjust and unrighteous laws.  It happens.  God’s Enemy and enemies are always looking to lead us away.  The world is always rebelling against its Creator.  And when that Christ-like suffering occurs, Peter reminds us that we are sharing in Christ’s ministry just as we will, one day, share in His eternal glory!  One day, one magnificent day in the future when He fully reveals His glory. God will exalt all His children, just as He has exalted our Lord now!  Can you imagine?  And a sign that you are to share in that glory is the Christ-like suffering you experience on earth.  What an amazing idea!  What an incredible promise!
     And, just to remind us that this is a Gospel we proclaim, that we are heralds of great news, we can even ask God to use the consequences of our sins to His glory and the welfare of others.  Had I left you or Jim wallowing in your own consequences, I would not be sharing in His ministry.  You see, all God requires of us is to repent of our sins, truly, seriously repent.  And just like that, even the consequences of our sins are transformed.  The punishment that we should have born is taken on that Cross for our sakes, and we are set free to minister in His Name!  We are empowered to become heralds of His Gospel that all those around us might be drawn into His saving embrace.
     How do we know this to be true?  Jesus beseeches of His Father in heaven to allow us to glorify Him, that the Father may, too, be glorified in us.  Can you imagine?  Just before He began that walk to Calvary, our Lord prayed to the Father in heaven that we might shared in His purposes.  Better still, that we would not fail, He promised us the coming of the Holy Comforter.  And don’t misunderstand what Jesus meant by the Comforter.  Jim made that mistake earlier this week.  When I told Him that all he needed to do to get right with God was to repent, he could not bring himself to believe.  When I assured him, as I am assuring each of you this day, that God sends the Holy Spirit to comfort us during these times of trials, he so wanted to believe he was loved.  I might be too far gone, Father.  
     “BS,” I said.  “You ever cheer as a deacon was put to death?”
     “You ever try and seize the property or imprison those who follow this Resurrected Jesus?”
      “Then you have not yet hit the lows of St. Paul.  And if God can use him despite all that Paul did, just imagine what He can do with you.”
      I ask the same questions of you, brothers and sisters.  If you find yourself sympathizing with Jim’s feeling of unworth and disbelief, remember those sitting around you, those who have come before you, and all those with whom we will one day spend all eternity glorifying God.  Jesus’ family is full of outcasts, foreigners, black sheep, and other unsavory characters.  Each, though, in his own or her own way, though, has been redeemed by their Lord and empowered to do His will simply because they humbled themselves and repented.  More amazingly, He has even offered to take the consequences of our sins upon Himself.  What we should be suffering through serious fault of our own, He promises to redeem.  Yes, there still may be pain.  Yes, there still may be hurt.  But the suffering is transformed by our Lord into a testimony for His glory.  That is His promise!  That is part of the glory of which we are promised a first-born’s share.  



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