Rejoice in my suffering? Are you CRAZY...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, August 1, 2010. This is the fifth in a series of reflections on Paul's letter to the Romans. I will be using the lectionary gospel - Luke 12 - as well as Romans 5: 1-5 for this week's message. I hope that if you're in town, you'll join us at 10:30 am.

There is an old, old saying that I always link to the loving grace of God that goes something like: you can run, baby, you can run as far and wide as you want, but from the grace of God you can NEVER hide. You know that one? You can run, but you can’t hide?!?

• Many of you know that I am peculiarly wired to listen for the voice of our still speaking God in all kinds of odd places like rock and roll songs, hip hop music, jazz poetry and weird stories from the under belly of respectable society. And time and again, not only do I hear the voice of God’s grace in those places, but I’m strengthened for the journey.

• Back in the Vietnam War, a girl group from Motown by the name of Martha and the Vandellas had a big hit in 1965 with something called, “Nowhere to Run.” You might not think of it as a religious song – it has a KILLER back beat and a sexy vibe – but I’m telling you when Martha Reeves sings that chorus… it’s like a prayer to me about the grace of God that won’t give up on any of us.

It is the soul music version of those “lost” parables in the gospel of Luke – all three of them – that tell us: God is like a woman searching for a lost coin or a shepherd searching for a lost sheep or a father searching for a lost child, right? You can run, but you can’t hide; you can try to get lost, but God won’t give up; you can even fail and throw your life away into the mire of the hog pit, but the Lord will never quit on you.

I think the old Seattle grunge band, Nirvana, knew something about God’s grace, too, although it often came out in a broken and upside down way. When they sang, “Come as You Are” I heard a modern lament that is totally edgy and doesn’t sound very holy, but imagine the heart of the Lord is speaking to alienated young people through the sad words of Kurt Cobain: come as you are – as you were – as I want you to be – as a friend – as a friend – or an old enemy – dowsed in mud – soaked in bleach – as a friend – as I want you to be…”

To me it sounds like what St. Paul was telling us when he said not to worry about our suffering or our fears or the mud and muck of real life. In Romans five he writes that God’s love is always there…

Even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

The traditional words work just as well: For since we have been put into right relations with God by grace… we can rejoice in even our suffering because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint because hope is the presence of the Holy Spirit within and among us given by God.

So much of popular culture is aching for hope: in every class, culture and race – in every political context or economic struggle – in almost all the art, music and entertainment that saturates the silence of our generation – there is a longing for hope and peace and rest. And sadly, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, most of the time we can’t get no satisfaction. We are looking for love and hope in all the wrong places and still haven’t realized that both the Beatles and Jesus were right when they sang, “Money Can’t Buy Me Love.”

"The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop so he said to himself: 'What can I do? My barn isn't big enough for this harvest. Hmmmm…? Here's what I'll do: I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I'll gather in all my grain and goods, and I'll say to myself: Self, you've done well! You've got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!” Well, just then God showed up and said, 'Fool! Tonight you die. And your barn full of goods will perish—who gets the bounty?” And pausing for effect, Jesus turned to his disciples and said: "That's what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God." So what good does it profit a man or woman to inherit the world and lose their soul?

So listen carefully to what Paul advises because this is crucial – a matter of life and death for most of us – that goes far beyond the limited sphere of our own lives, too. When Paul tells us that we can rejoice in our sufferings because they eventually lead us to hope, he isn’t crazy. I know it sounds crazy, but only to those who don’t really trust God’s grace, ok? That’s the first insight: Paul is reminding us that only those who have experienced God’s forgiveness – and trust God’s promises by faith – can find meaning and even hope in the pain their lives. Without faith – trust – pain is just pain: mean, cruel and ugly.

Are you still with me here? Paul’s words to us in chapter five of Romans are the first conclusion he reaches based upon the insights he has already shared with us in the first four chapters of this letter. And let me remind you of his first four points:

• In chapter one he tells us that the heart and soul of God can be summarized by the words grace and peace. God’s grace is never ending – as we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – and right relations with people and the Lord – peace – is what begins to take place when we are open to grace. First, there is the nature of God in grace and peace.

• In chapter two Paul tells us that when we choose to run away from grace and violate peace – for whatever reason – we experience God’s wrath. But not in a superstitious or over blown way like hellfire and brimstone, but rather through God’s absence. God’s wrath is God letting us experience the consequences of our choices in the hope that we’ll want something better. “You want to know what it is like living like you are in charge? Ok… have it your way” the Lord says.

• In chapter three he is at great pains to help us realize what sin really means: breaking covenant. For Paul sin is when we choose to break covenant with God – and experience God’s absence – which can be seen through broken relationships with people and unhealthy and broken living.

• And in chapter four he shows us an alternative using the example of Abraham and Sarah: they are what faith looks like – they are a proto-type of how to live into the Lord’s prayer – for they take one step and one day at a time on the journey of faith and trust that God’s promises will be revealed in God’s time. They don’t know the whole story and they are certainly perplexed about how God is going to bring life from out of their old, tired bones. But they trust – which is what faith means – that God is God and they are not.

God’s eternal grace and peace, our experience of God’s absence, an awareness that sin is breaking covenant and the way sin is overcome by faith – in our case faith in the love of God made flesh in Jesus – ok?

Therefore, Paul can say with confidence in chapter five, IF you are open to God’s grace and peace, IF you have known God’s absence and are ready for a change, IF you are able to confess your brokenness and trust by faith that God’s love in Christ can bring you healing, forgiveness and grace; THEN the Spirit of God will lead you through all suffering into hope. NOT that all suffering leads to God – NOT that all suffering is of the Lord – and NOT that any of this is automatic or free.

• Rather it is only by trusting in God’s grace – and looking for the light within the darkness in the Spirit of Christ – that our suffering becomes hope. And only then through practice, patience endurance, the cultivation of a Christian character and all the rest.

• Am I being clear in this? That trust in God’s grace is the only way to rejoice in our suffering – and everything else is a dead end?

Theologians speak of trusting as the Paschal Mystery – acknowledging that God can make something out of nothing and bring life out of death – for that is what we see in Jesus Christ.

• Think of the Lord’s birth: we don’t fully know how to wrap our minds around the words of Scripture but we sense that by Mary’s faith God brought the sacred into the flesh for the healing of the world. Think of Christ’s life: always sharing grace in radical ways so that people in pain might be set free.

• Think of Christ’s death: enduring the Cross trusting beyond the evidence that God’s love was bigger than his death. Think of Christ’s resurrection: new life beyond the pain – beyond the tomb – beyond the guilt, fear and sin.

All of this is what Paul points towards when he says that our suffering can produce endurance – we might call it patience – which can lead to a more Christ-like character that will always discover hope within the suffering. Because, you see, hope is what the Holy Spirit looks and feels like to those who trust God in faith. Hope is not magic nor is hope an illusion. Hope is how we experience the Holy Spirit being poured into our hearts by God: it is born of faith and nourished by practice so that even our sufferings strengthen us in God’s love.

Now, look, none of this is easy, I know that. Paul knows that, too, ok? Remember he was shipwrecked and beaten for his faith – he had to give up the traditions of his youth and culture and family – and eventually was martyred in Rome. This isn’t Hanna Montana talking to us about hope – this is a gnarly little man who had the crap beaten out of him in almost every way imaginable – this dude was time-tested. And what is his counsel to those of us who follow him in faith? How are we to practice and nourish the patience that leads us to hope? Rejoice – rejoice in the Lord always – that’s what he told those who trained with him around first century Palestine. And it is good advice:

• We already know how to feel sorry for ourselves – and we have all matriculated at the University of Complaints – in these things we are professionals.

• And we know something about gaining the world of things while losing our souls, too. But rejoicing – in the Lord for ALL things – not so much?

But that’s the challenge for people who live by faith. Do you know the little book Tuesdays with Morrie? It isn’t a particularly theological book but it is still filled with wisdom. And one of the things that Morrie – a tired old Jewish intellectual who is dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease – tells his former student is that whenever he starts to despair or feel sorry for himself – and it happens a lot as the disease matures – he writes it down and saves his complaint for the next day. Then, for the first 30 minutes of the day he hollers and screams and rails against the Lord and everyone else for the cruelty of his failing body. But after 30 minutes he makes himself stop because otherwise he says slyly I would become lost in despair and miss all of the blessings that are still happening.

In other words, Morrie practices rejoicing. So let me wrap this up by asking you to practice a little song born of St. Paul’s words that goes: Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice (that’s part one) – rejoice, rejoice and again I say rejoice (that’s part two.) And when we put the two parts together – in a round – it is a simple and effective antidote to self-pity and despair. In fact, it can help us open our hearts to find the hope God is already pouring into our hearts by the Spirit.
Sing it with me?

1) Bible poster from Catholic Educators @
2) Question mark @
3) Suffering @


Black Pete said…
So much here. I am acutely aware these days of how little I am in control, and how much God is. When will the ground not feel like a diving board off a precipice?

Thanks, man.
RJ said…
Good question, my man, and who knows, yes?

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