Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sharing in the Sufferings Of Christ

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of suffering addressed in Scripture: the suffering that is common to the human condition and a result of living in a fallen world; the suffering that we bring upon ourselves when we make bad choices; and the suffering that is unique to God’s people when they suffer for his righteousness. To this last category of suffering belongs the suffering of Christians when we share in the sufferings of Christ.

All three of these categories have in common something that is sometimes overlooked. God makes his home in the midst of human suffering - no matter the cause of it - and desires to help those who suffer. In the cross of Christ, God makes it clear that the chaos that accompanies suffering is not an alien place for him; rather, he declares that arena of turmoil, doubt, and confusion to be a place where he is not ashamed to abide, even while he works patiently to bring those who suffer into a deeper experience of his grace and love. We, however, often run away from suffering. Running away from suffering is usually unhelpful.

As we approached the communion table on Sunday I shared a portion of what one person wrote about her efforts to turn away from and/or deny the suffering that was a part of her life:
“I would find myself feeling sad and I would not know why. I would get a little inkling that maybe it had something to do with the abuse I suffered as a child but what happened to me really wasn’t that bad - not like what you hear about some people. But it all hurt too much to think about anyway and so I would run away from that sadness pretty much all of the time. Then one day I just got tired of running away from the sadness and decided to sit there and let myself feel the weight of it all. As tears flowed I began to make sense of some of those mysterious verses in the New Testament like these:
Romans 8: 22, We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in* hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes* for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. 27And God,* who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit* intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.*

“When I used to run away from suffering I did not realize that I was running away from God and running away from this love where and when I needed to be loved by him the most. When I used to run away from suffering I would always run into the arms of some sort of trouble, some sort of self-destructive behavior, but now I am starting to run into God’s arms and the oddest feeling of all is that when I do that, I feel a little more like myself..... “.

Sometimes, the most important step we can take with regard to our spiritual formation is to acknowledge at once the weight of our suffering and God’s presence with us in it.

The passage in 1 Peter from Sunday talks about the third category of suffering we mentioned above. It is the suffering that we enter into through sharing in the sufferings of Christ. As we share in the mission of Christ to bring his love to those who do not know his love - or perhaps hate what they imagine his love to mean for them and this world - we will share in the sufferings of Christ. In Peter’s setting this suffering jumped right into the face of the believers to whom he was writing. At this time in the Roman world, to follow Jesus set one apart immediately and invited severe social scorn or more severe forms of abuse. For the Christians to whom Peter wrote, sharing in Jesus’ mission meant to bear witness in words and good works to the love of God for all of humankind, especially those who hated them. They were to live in this way while not returning evil for evil but good for evil, while loving and praying for their enemies.

For Peter’s audience sharing in Christ’s suffering came into sharp focus for these young converts because of pressure from outside of the community. It is not so much the case for us in our place and our time. We should, of course, pray that we will recognize persecution, should it come, as our sharing in Christ’s suffering. However, most of us probably do not have our identity with Christ and his mission wrapped up in an experience of being persecuted. Rather, we have a greater need to ask God to bind us to Christ’s mission in the world so that we will share in his suffering.

As we pray about God binding us to Christ’s suffering in the world it may good for us to remember a few truths that are forever easy for us to forget.

1. Our calling in the world is not to be popular but to be representatives of Jesus. This is tricky to talk about because in our darker moments we may want to hurt others in the name of Christ and call the unpopularity reaped by such mean-spirited behavior a sharing in Christ’s sufferings. However, it would be impossible to justify this mode in the name of the one who said love your enemies and pray for them. To make the right decision for the right reasons with regard to bringing the gospel to bear in certain difficult situations will require a lot of God-given discernment. One thing I find helpful to remember is that Jesus’ own suffering came as a result of his self-giving love. Those who opposed him and made him suffer were those who sought to control God’s grace and favor - ultimately those who opposed Jesus opposed the idea that God would reveal himself as self-giving love (those addicted to their own power do not like the implications of a God who makes himself known to the world by suffering for his enemies).

2. So much of our confusion around and bland thinking about our calling to suffer with Christ in this world is due to our unwillingness to be pulled into the messiness of other lives, and a refusal to see responsibility for each other simply because of our shared humanity. But sharing in Christ’s suffering means taking responsibility for the suffering of our fellow human beings. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable that is often referred to as the parable of the sheep and the goats. In this story Jesus says that his followers will be those who served him while they were serving the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, the strangers, and the outcasts. Among other things, this surely means that Jesus is present with those who suffer and beckoning us to come and serve them, hence sharing in his sufferings.

So, our goal in this life is not to be persecuted but to faithfully bring the presence of Christ and the message of the gospel into dangerous and critical situations. Will we be the people in our families and circles of friends who refuse to demonize other family members and friends but instead be voices for reconciliation and love? Will we be people who invite our coworkers to sacrifice their free time and resources in order to serve with us at the homeless shelter? Will we hold the hand of someone in the hospital when being there is a painful reminder of our own pain?

Questions for discussion:

1. Are there things you need to put into play in your life in order to share more deeply in the sufferings of Christ? Can you offer some examples of actions you might need to take or prayers you may need to pray?

2. We said above that we are to share the words of the gospel with those who do not believe in a manner that is in step with Christ’s self-giving love. Can you think of what this might mean for you with regard to a particular relationship you have?

3. Are you transparent to your own suffering or are you a master at running away from suffering? What has helped you to have the courage to face pain in your life honestly? What circumstance and attitudes have enabled you to live in denial? What role does community play in this for the better or for the worse?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Grace Saturated Community 2

"No one who has read church history can conclude the truth of Christian belief from the moral superiority of Christian practice."
This quote is from an essay entitled "Attending the Gaps Between Beliefs and Practices", by Amy Plantinga Pauw. Whether the reference point is 2000 years of church history or the empirical evidence of our own personal lives each of us, in our more honest moments, knows about this gap. The question is: how do we react to the gaps? Do we acknowledge the gaps humbly and seek to live moment by moment in the knowledge that we are at our human best when we are admitting our brokenness, beseeching God to act in us and through us, and repenting of our sins? Or, do we engage in the charade of pretending we are better than we are, expending a great deal of energy in a massive cover-up of our weaknesses, doubts, failures and sins? When we resemble the latter approach, we point away from the gospel and to ourselves, away from God's rich grace and tireless love, and towards human arrogance.

The point of Pauw's essay is to encourage Christians to "relax their hearts" and be honest about these gaps that each of us have between beliefs and practices because God likes to work with the materials of our honesty and vulnerabilities; they are the putty in his hands with which he shapes us into the image of Christ. Pauw reminds us that many times the most holy thing we can do is to pray the classic prayer of the Christian mystic: O my God I do not love thee. O my God I do not want to love thee. But Oh my God I do want to want to love thee. Better to pray that prayer than to pretend we are better than we are. And this brings us to our text from 1 Peter again. Each of us are to live as good stewards of the manifold grace of God that has been given to us. Among other things this passage points us towards just the sort of community of relaxed hearts that Pauw has in mind. We are stewards only of what God is doing in each of us, for, as Saint Paul puts it elsewhere: what do you have that you did not receive? So, each of us is to do our part to shape our community into a place where people feel that they can be safe while they attend to the gaps. As Pauw puts it: "when belief shapes practice in an excellent way, we celebrate God's grace not human effort. For us as people of faith who want to want to love God, the communal settings of proclamation, sacraments and confession frame our hopes for closing the gap between beliefs and practices. In those settings we can reaffirm the truth of our dependence on the riches of God's grace.... freed by God's assurance of forgiveness we can dare to probe the corruptions in our beliefs and practices (Pauw)."

Questions for discussion:

1. Reverend Craig Barnes has said, “the way of the Cross never takes us away from the limitations and hunger that are characteristic of all humanity. It simply leads us back to the world with the strange message that our limited humanity is the mark of our need for God. It is enough. It is a great reason for hope.” What setting or conditions make it more likely for you to acknowledge your limits so that you can communicate hope to those close to you? What setting or conditions make it less likely that you will operate in this humble manner?

2. One of the points of Pauw's essay is that beliefs and practices must be joined by the affections of our heart in order for the gap to be closed and for us to move in the right direction. One can't make oneself love rightly though, right? So, what is our responsibility in tending to the affections of our hearts?

3. Do you feel or sense God's pleasure when you confess your sins to him? If not, what might you do about that?