Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lent Four: Expecting Suffering

When I write a blog series I usually start with a few words that I write down, rearrange, pray and puzzle over for weeks, sometimes months.
Sometimes patterns emerge. Sometimes new things jump into focus.

This Lent, I somehow ended up with “e” verbs: embracing, eluding, exploring.


Expecting what?

The last weeks of Lent traditionally focus on the passion of Christ – from the Greek word paschein (πάσχειν), to suffer.

He warned his followers in Luke 9 (the same chapter that speaks of John's beheading): 
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:22-23 )
Matthew’s version of the story includes a brief interchange with Peter: 
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matthew 16:22-24) 
Jesus’ point seems harsh, but clear: those who follow him should expect to encounter and share in the pain of the world.   Those who object are a stumbling block, trapped in a flawed perspective.

Jesus wanted his friends to be ready, not caught by surprise.

Expecting sorrow. Sacrifice. Suffering.

As a North American Christian, I’ve been taught that things should go my way. I have rights, protections, expectations. Suffering, sacrifice and sorrow have no place in the story my culture has promised.

Yet suffering, sacrifice and sorrow are part of the story we’re all called to, the part of the story we object to and avoid.

This morning’s news is full of stories of suffering: a monster cyclone shattered the impoverished island nation of Vanuatu.

A convent was attacked in eastern India and a 74 year old nun raped by six men. 

Since I sat down to write, this latest story: “Bombs outside two churches in the Pakistani city of Lahore killed 14 people and wounded nearly 80 during Sunday services, and witnesses said quick action by a security guard prevented many more deaths.”  

Whatever sacrifices we make in Lent are small, symbolic, and hardly representative of the real suffering of the world. Whatever suffering I’ve seen or experienced seems very small in comparison to even this morning’s news.

And sacrifice? It seemed almost irreverent this year, to be discussing giving up chocolate or Facebook, while on the other side of the globe followers of Christ are giving their lives, burned and beheaded by extremist enemies of the Christian faith.

The response of those communities is instructive, humbling, and deeply moving: Beshir Kamel, brother to two of the Coptic Orthodox Christians beheaded on a deserted beach in Libya, thanked ISIS for not editing out the last words of those kneeling as they waited for death:  “Ya Rabbi Yasou”: Rabbi (teacher, master, great one, Lord) Jesus. O Lord Jesus. Help. 

“Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us."   
Reflecting on the deaths of these men, and so many others, Orthodox Christians point to their two-thousand year history of persecution and martyrdom, and remind other outraged Christians that this is part of the story, not cause for calls of revenge or war: 
In the precipice of martyrdom, St Stephen, the Proto-martyr begged God to forgive his killers.  Was there an apostolic uprising following that?
Hieromartyr Eutychius, disciple of St John the Theologian, was beheaded after starvation in prison, an attempt to burn him alive, and cruel beatings with iron rods…which were made to cease by his prayers.  There is no account of retribution. . . .
We stand proudly with the martyrs, whose blood is the foundation of the Church.  And we beg God to grant us equal strength when we have to face what they did. 
In worship in our church this morning, I found myself thinking of the video I chose not to watch: of the men beheaded, and their final words.

I had an overwhelming sense of their presence now with God, their names written on Jesus’ hands, their broken bodies carried in his arms.

I had a sense of God’s love flowing through them – through their wounds, their blood – to their heart-broken families, their shattered church.

I was struck by how reluctant I am to see past my own sanitized, safe little world. I don’t want to see their blood. I don’t want to kneel with them in their pain.

Yet I felt convicted to come home and watch, and pray.

It took a while to find the uncensored five minutes video. And no, I’m not going to link to it.

Icon of the 21 Martyrs of Libya, Tony Rezk
But I did watch it. Kneeling.

The world can be a brutal place.

And humans of all kinds can be agents of great evil.

In my recent reading in Acts, I was struck by the account of Paul heading off to Jerusalem after being warned by Agabus that he’d be bound by the Jewish leaders and handed over to the Romans. He acknowledged the warning and continued on his way, expecting trouble, but not moved by it.

It reminded me of accounts of the marchers in Selma, moving toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge: expecting trouble, but unmoved.

I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.
There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. So like the Apostle Paul I can now humbly yet proudly say, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.   
From what I’ve seen and know of the world, suffering is inevitable. It can sweep through like a cyclone, smashing everything in its way. 

Or it can linger like the drip drip drip of mental anguish: Altzheimer's, psychzophrenia, unrelieved depression.

We can spend our days looking for ways to stay safe, running from choices that would open us to pain, responding with fury when our defenses fail us.

Or we can choose to expect suffering, choose to move forward forewarned and aware, but not gripped by fear or dissuaded from what’s right. 

This is the fifth in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:


From 2013: