Posts Tagged ‘Suffering’

What is a “Christian”?

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

What a question!  Serving dinner recently at a homeless shelter, a man turned from his table and asked me.  One answer from Matthew 25…

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40  “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

I mean that is pretty disarmingly simple.

Many define Christianity differently, as being baptized, meeting sacraments, taking Communion. Yet Christ baptized no one that we read of in the New Testament.  He never commanded seriatim the full list of the many sacraments we align religion with.  He does not command Communion but instead offers it.

And it is not to say those things are wrong or mistaken. They are powerful.  Important. Clearly inspired. Cleary carriers of the Divine. But not the litmus test.

The litmus test – simpler and more challenging … what are you doing for those who suffer?





Always Suffering. Always Winning

Friday, April 10th, 2015

Always suffering.  Always winning.  Two “always” that maybe, in some way, form a key to understanding the Christian life.

It is a life of suffering.  Hard for it not to be.  The call is – really is – to place ourselves as outliers within the broader culture. Not as warriors against common culture but, as Shane Claiborne phrased it, as “a peculiar alternative” to common culture.  ”In the world but not of the world.” That means placing ourselves away from the comfort and self-reinforcing walls we tend to erect in our pursuit of what is safe, what is secure. And placing our full and undefended lives in areas of need.

It is life that is always winning as well.  Hard for it not to be.  The call is – really is – to accept that there is bigger plan beyond ours.  And rest there.  Rest in the peace that “passes all understanding”, a peace not based on circumstances but based on a soul-level, grounded peace that simply knows.  Knows God’s presence.  Knows God’s enduring love. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:23)

Words may well fall short in describing how suffering and peace come together.  Maybe all one can say is this … they do.  And that is the holiness of the struggle.

Building Open Christian Communities or Closed Christian Churches

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Christianity is a communal endeavor, an endeavor to live not for ones self but for others.  What is holy is what is connected and open. Christianity is not then for the rugged individualist.  Christianity offers little as well for those who see in it a highly prescribed form of holiness … a closed system of righteousness.  What it offers to all is community, a functional definition of the word “community” readily substituted with the word “heaven.”

Communities form and the miracle of God’s spirit does its work.  But we, as human beings, largely fail to be content with just that.  We strive to formalize, codify, capture and tame (neuter?) the experience of God.   Instead of building open Christian communities we build closed churches. Christianity then morphs into Churchianity.

The loss in this downward progression from Community to Church are those whom we are called to serve … the suffering of the world.   There is little space or “band width” for the work of extending community to those in need when the work instead goes towards maintaining a church.

That is not to glibly pass over the need to maintain structures but that work must be done in the spirit of holding first things first.  A church is not created to serve itself and a closed community.  A church is created to be a matrix out of which the lived moral experience of flawed souls trying to live Christianity is drawn outward to touch the suffering of the world.  I live in deep gratitude for all those around me who live that very thing!



Christ and Suffering

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

The question of suffering is critical to the question of what it means to live a Christian life.

We start from a simple premise, that as Peter Kreeft noted, Christ’s way is showing us a way into suffering, not a way out of it.   We enter into suffering/ we are confronted by suffering through sin in the world.  And that sin is far different than merely movement away from right behavior.  The sin Christ consistently confronted was the sin … and here is where the axis turns … where we refused to address the suffering of the world.   We hear echoes of that even in the Old Testament where God identifies the sin of Sodom … “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ez. 19)  That fatal arrogance earned the city’s destruction.

Salvation as a concept then focuses far more on action into that suffering than on a passive belief structure.  From a Swedenborgian perspective, it is why Faith and Life cannot be divided.  It is where we move, as Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, phrases it, from asking  “Life, what is your meaning?” to realizing that life is asking us “What is your meaning?”  We move from putting God on the hook so to speak to explain the suffering of the world to seeing God actually placing us on the hook, with responsibility to address that same suffering.

Don’t allow your religion or your church to let you off the hook.




God is taking care of everything

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

One of the hardest roles of a pastor is finding a center in a moving space.  On one side lies a need to call people to greatness.  To call them to strive for lives of excellence, meaning and purpose.  On another side, lies a need to call people to the hard edge of sacrifice, suffering, and true giving.  To far one way, religion becomes little more than shallow cheer leading.  Too far the other, and religion becomes the darkness it hopes to extinguish.

Christ constantly spoke to us of a third way between polarities…  a unified field as it were.  In  that place, in that third way, there is simple trust.  Trust that the words will come when they need to come.  Trust that somehow God stirs us both to striving and stirs us to sacrifice.  That for me, is why the touchstone of suffering is so critical.

Drawing alongside of suffering quickly becomes an exercise in both/ and thinking.  Yes, he is an addict and yes, he is a man deeply connected to God.  Yes, she has cancer, and yes, she is a woman fully alive.   Yes, we can strive to grow a church beyond 1,000, and yes, the meaning of it all remains joyously hidden in the smallest of personal human interactions.

Because the fact remains God is taking care of it all.

Roger Ebert’s wife shared this thought on her husband’s recent passing. “The one thing people might be surprised about—Roger said that he didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened. That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What’s a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.”

There is in the end an innate sense of something more, something greater.  God opens that for us as we regain our willingness to strive and to sacrifice, to find connection and stillness.   “He opens the skylights and then the windows … and enables us to see that heaven is real, that there is a life after death, and that there is eternal happiness.  By the spiritual light and spiritual love that then flow in together, he enables us to recognize that through Divine Providence God is taking care of everything.” (Divine Providence, 207)

Thoughts on “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” by Jonathan Franzen

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Over 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul wrote in Corinthians, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians, 1:22)  A beautiful line in which we see a mirror of ourselves.

We often do demand of faith miraculous signs, the “hallelujah” moment of glorious insight and conversion.   At other times we yearn for the deep wisdom of faith in which all fears and doubts are allayed with a thunder-clap of certitude. But that is not Christianity.

What is it then?

Christianity is the drawing alongside of suffering with the transformative force of self-sacrificing love … a preaching then of “Christ crucified.”  It understands that “Liking (in the Facebook sense) is for Cowards.  Go for What Hurts.”  And what hurts is learning to love in a specific way.   As Jonathan Franzen recently wrote in a Op-Ed piece for the New York Times …

Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self….

When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.

Welcome to what hurts!  Welcome to what serves.  Welcome to what saves.





Does Suffering Make More Sense With God or Without God?

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

This is a core question.  In “Man’s Search for Meaning” Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wrote that without God, all suffering becomes meaningless, without purpose.  With God, we gain a containment for meaning.

Facing the struggles of this past week has been a time of suffering. Watching one’s child face pain, disappointment and uncertainty is certainly far from God’s wish for our lives.  The future may indeed unfold in positive ways, and, that being said, this journey leaves its mark.

And maybe that is where “meaning” comes in.  In other words, what will the “mark” be?

A “mark” that burns, that fails to heal, that says this is further proof of the non-existence of God or the unfairness of God, saddens.  So many places of grace over the past week – impossible to count – gently refute the shouted demands of that mark.

A “mark” of remembrance, of witness however – that is what will remain.  A few weeks ago I talked with a mom of someone in our congregation who spoke with tears about how much it meant to her to know that her daughter’s church was supporting her.  Deeply moving conversation – a remembrance, a witnessing.

Maybe in the end it not about us seeking to find God’s meaning in all this.  Maybe it us joining with God as He joins us in a loving, compassionate search for meaning, for transcendent purpose, for the “mark”, a mark that reminds us of how precious we are to each other and how precious this one wild journey called “life” is.

The Only Way Through It, Is, Well, Through It

Friday, April 8th, 2011

In the hours before the horror of the Easter Story began to unfold, Jesus sat with a number of disciples and asked them to “Stay and watch with Me.”  He also prayed, prayed in a way known to the broken, known to those facing overwhelming pain and disappointment.

Within that prayer, one section is especially noted in the Gospel of Matthew. “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

It is easy to read this prayer as a plea for the cup of suffering to pass from Him.  But there is more there on a closer reading. Note – the Cup will pass, but it will only pass with it drinking.  Restated, the only way through is through.  This is knowledge we can possess at our core.  (see the following clip from Harry Potter)

Yet we live in such a way that we would never choose that – of course one would reject suffering.  Of course we would push the cup away.  But the Divine plan includes a falling, a falling that is needed for life to spring anew.  That is the right kind of dying.  Of course it is often accompanied by pain.  But faith is the understanding that there is a Knower, there is a purpose which we can only glimpse as we enter the valleys of life’s journey.

I been been witness to this death over and over again in people whose courage is simply breathtaking.   In the midst of the storm, of course they don’t see it as such and resolutely push back on any accolades.  But those are the very still, quiet, strong souls who somehow keep it all together and here I speak of a “keeping it all together” on a much broader plain than their individual lives.  They are the community of saints in a certain respect who balance the lives of those around them in unforeseen ways.