Some hard questions about suffering...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 15, 2011 - the third installment of the "Love Wins" series inspired by Rob Bell's new book.  It also grows out of what happened last week in worship when I asked the congregation to consider exploring the really hard questions that challenge our faith.  If you are around, please join us at 10:30 am.

“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, rather we live ourselves into new ways of thinking." (Richard Rohr) Fr. Richard Rohr’s quote came to me this week as I was thinking about the description of the early church as recorded in Acts 2: 42 where we’re told:
The faithful devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Think about that for a moment – and let it sink in – for this is essential: "Because we do not think ourselves into new ways of living, but rather live ourselves into new ways of thinking,” the disciples let the Spirit guide them into a new way of living we might call the Christ life: “where we show wisdom by trusting people, handle leadership by serving, handle offenders by forgiving, handle money by sharing, handle enemies by loving and handle violence by suffering” just as Jesus did in the flesh. 

It is the upside down kingdom that Jesus asks us to live so that God’s people might come to think about life in new ways. And today – as a part of our series on hard questions – I want to consider what Christ’s upside down wisdom has to say about human suffering. Because if you are anything like me there is a part of you that wants to trust Jesus as the Good Shepherd – we want this with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – and at the same times we also know that sometimes we wonder: “Where the hell is God in all of this?” I’ve asked that question out loud and in prayer at different times in my life – and I bet you have, too, right?

• Where the hell is God in all of this mess? Why is this happening to me? Or my baby? Or my lover? Or my dearest friend?

• Sometimes we put the question like this: If God is God, then what is so holy and sacred about cancer? Or Alzheimer’s disease? Or random and senseless acts of violence? Or addiction?

Like I said: Where the hell is God in any of this? “That question,” said my doctoral advisor, Warren Lee, “is non-negotiable for those of us who want to serve the Lord in the local church. And if you can’t answer that question with integrity and clarity,” he told me, “then get out of this business as fast as you can because you’ll do more harm than good. That is the question most people NEED answers to so almost everything else you do in ministry,” he concluded, “will be mere commentary.”

• And I think he was right so go back with me to the beginning of this message when I said that we don’t think ourselves into new ways of living, rather we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.

• Christians have been invited by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to trust that even when life is saturated with suffering – and I mean filled with pain on a personal, social, environmental, political and economical level – we have been invited to live as if God is still God.

We have been called to live in a way that acknowledges that God is truly in charge of heaven and earth – committed to bringing grace and justice into every nook and cranny of creation – even if the evidence is obscure – or missing - or confusing to us. We are asked to trust that God is God just as the opening poem of Genesis tells us: “in the beginning there was God who created both heaven and earth.” Listen carefully to how Peterson’s restates the poetry of Genesis One:

First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. Then God spoke: "Light!" And light appeared. God saw that light was good and separated light from dark. God named the light Day, he named the dark Night. And it was evening, it was morning— Day One… (And after creating EVERYTHING that was created – including human kind in the living image of God) God looked over everything he had made; and saw that it was so good, so very good! It was evening, it was morning— Day Six. So on the seventh day God rested…

Now did you notice that this sacred poem does NOT say that in the beginning there was nothing? That is nihilism – life filled with emptiness and fear not at all what we affirm by faith. No, the Genesis poem says that the Christ life first celebrates that there was God; then we testify that God created – not destroyed or dawdled – not procrastinated or experimented – but God created.  And then, we bear witness to the fact that God’s creativity was not just about trinkets or incidentals, but the abundance of heaven and earth.

• Are you still with me? If we want to find out where the hell the Lord is in the middle of all our suffering we have to get grounded in God right from the start: in the beginning – God.

• And not some vague, new-age notion of an ephemeral eternal spirit: we’re talking about the creative Lord of all time and space who was there before there even was a beginning.

You see, the first clue to living into God s grace within our suffering begins with God and God’s nature: not ourselves – not the emptiness – not our fears or addictions; we start with God the Creator who gave life and shape and form to heaven and earth. It is not coincidental, you know, that our friends in AA begin their program of healing people from the hell of alcoholism with three steps that say: 

1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable. 

2) We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3) We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

At the core of this confession is an awareness that God not only has something better in store for us than we can ever cook up all by ourselves – God’s creative love as Genesis puts it – but that God can meet and embrace us even in our most ugly, depraved, shame-filled and wounded places. We may run and hide away from God’s grace, but God’s love is bigger than our pain.
• That’s what so many of the Jesus stories are all about, right? Christ the Good Shepherd doesn’t stay locked up in the Sanctuary. He goes out into the world beyond the confines of the sheep pen to bring the wounded into safety, to heal the sick and to love and cherish all who have been pushed to the periphery by fear or pain or suffering.

• One part of finding God’s presence in the midst of our suffering begins with living into this commitment: in the beginning is God – and that includes the beginning of your life, the beginning of creation and the beginning of heaven and earth.

Now, if it is true that God’s creative presence is found at the beginning – and I think most modern people need to spend a LOT of time letting ourselves be saturated with the awe and beauty of this truth – then another piece of the puzzle has to do with making this truth a part of your everyday life. That’s what faith really means – not memorizing the catechism or knowing how to follow the leader or jump through the hoops of a liturgy – but living into God’s creative and healing presence in your ordinary, everyday lives right now. 

St. Paul told the earliest believers in Romans 12:
So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

And this is where real faith gets tricky – especially in our suffering – because we have come to believe that if we can just understand something, we can fix it. We can make things better – take away the sting of suffering or sorrow – and make everything alright and that is just a lie. Most of the time there is NOTHING we can do to make things better, beloved.

You know what I’m talking about if you have ever sat with a loved one while she died – watching and waiting and praying – and no matter how much you understand about the end of life, no matter how great your wisdom is of human biology, you can’t take away their death and you can’t make it better.

When my sister, Linda, died almost 20 years ago at Easter, all my understanding of her pain and addiction – all my psychological wisdom about the root causes of her self-destructive actions – couldn’t take away the agony and sorrow of her senseless death. It hurt like hell.
• Early in my ministry, when I had to do the funeral service for 4 of 5 children burned to death in an electrical fire, my knowledge of their parents’ dysfunctional lifestyle gave me no clue about where to find God’s grace in that tragedy.

• When I saw small children eating dirt in the jungles of Nicaragua because they were starving; when you come to me and share stories of your fears, abuse or addictions; when I sit at my prayer desk in the morning or at night and try to catch a glimpse of the presence of the Lord amidst all this pain, let me tell you, it doesn’t come through what I know intellectually.

Not at all, God’s grace comes through trusting that beyond the evidence, God is still God. That is what St. Peter was really trying to tell us in his words this morning. Sure, we can get lost or distracted by his exterior words about slavery; it was a social norm of the day that we now find repulsive. So please don’t get stuck there. Look, instead, towards the interior wisdom of this passage – for Peter is talking about what he learned from Jesus – cultivating a life that knows how to redeem hardship and suffering and that is what bears closer attention.

What counts is that you (are learning) to put up with hardship for God's sake when you're treated badly for no good reason. There's no particular virtue in accepting punishment that you well deserve. But if you're treated badly for good behavior and continue in spite of it to be a good servant, that is what counts with God. This is the kind of life you've been invited into, the kind of life Christ lived. He suffered everything that came his way so you would know that it could be done, and also know how to do it, step-by-step.

In contemporary language we would call this “acceptance” like the Serenity Prayer teaches:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.
And acceptance, beloved, is never easy because it is not an intellectual construct to be mastered or a fact to be stored away. Acceptance is a spiritual practice – concrete faith in action – just as Fr. Rohr said. "We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, rather we live ourselves into new ways of thinking." And let’s be clear: a spiritual practice requires… practice!

So you can either waste a lot of precious time, love and energy trying to figure out how to comprehend and fix things that are totality beyond your control, or, right now you can start to practice trusting that God really is God. Right now you can choose to follow Jesus as the Good Shepherd who tells us: Anyone who goes through me will be cared for—will freely go in and out, and find pasture… I came so you can have real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed of.

• You can do that right now because you don’t need a seminary course in epistemology to trust Jesus. You just have to practice living as if God were really in charge. As if the upside-down kingdom was true.

• And as our buddies in the 12 step programs like to say, “If all your education and excuses get in the way, then fake it until you make it.” Act like you trust God’s grace until one day you wake up and discover that you have experienced it from the inside out.

So let me give you a challenge – a holy homework assignment, if you will – because I don’t want you to waste your pain – and I know that God doesn’t want that either. There is so much more healing that needs to happen within and among us and so much more love that needs to be shared world, too?

So here’s the deal: if you want to start practicing trusting God how about looking for some evidence this week for people who have learned to redeem their suffering? Look for some real life examples of people who have been wounded but lived into the presence of God’s love so profoundly that now their wound’s are a source of strength and beauty!

• It could happen while watching “Oprah” or the evening news.

• You might find a movie or a song that opens your heart, too.

Just look for a story of someone who learned to use their suffering for a greater good; someone who didn’t waste their pain, but rather let it be redeemed. Last Saturday night, I heard a song called “Willie’s Shades” by the great Australian guitarist, Tommy Emmanuel and it has haunted me ever since. Now when something like that happens – when you keep hearing a song or singing it over and over to yourself – pay attention: something important is going on that has to do with your healing your soul.

• So we’re going to sing it for you now as the end of today’s message because it is an invitation to quit wasting your pain.

• The time has come to be awed by God’s grace as we live together a new life born of Christ Jesus our Lord…

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