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God our Saviour,
in Jesus Christ you draw near to us,
entering this world where so much
does not turn out the way we expect or desire.
In Jesus, you embrace our pain;
you do not forsake us in our need:
you touch our cares and sorrow with your grace.
You make even hurt and suffering channels of your healing power.

So often we are not aware of your redeeming presence;
so often you call us to trust that you are at work
beyond what we perceive;
to live by faith rather than by sight.

And so, in faith,
trusting in your promises,
we give you thanks.

O wounded Saviour,
O resurrected Lord,
take the prayers we offer
and gather them into your suffering.
Heal us in our woundedness
and show us how to bear our afflictions
in such a way that people around us are given hope
and courage
and peace.

 

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This is the seventh in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous post and this one, I have been considering the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining. Part of the decline reflects a larger cultural drift away from certain kinds of organizations, in particular, organized religions and service groups,

Some of the decline is the result of cultural shifts which make the Christian message less appealing. As the alliance between the Church and the power centres of culture disappears, it becomes increasingly evident that the gospel, when taken seriously, is profoundly countercultural. The Church’s story has always been in tension with the world’s story. In post-Christendom, that tension becomes more apparent. The gospel invites you to lose your life in order to find it (Mark 8:35). Summoned and gathered by a God of suffering love, the Christian community has the cross of Jesus Christ at its centre — a symbol not of worldly success but of suffering and rejection and sacrifice for the sake of others (Douglas John Hall, “Suffering: The Badge of Discipleship,” The Living Pulpit, Inc., 2005).

Christians are “buried with Christ by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4) so as be freed from being pre-occupied with their own self-preservation or self-fulfillment and, thus, free to be concerned for others. Christian faith embraces disciplines and practices that form communities with the courage they need to confront the powers that rob humans of dignity and freedom. Christian spirituality is primarily communal: a matter of being found by God in the midst of messy, difficult, challenging human relationships. Such a gospel will find it hard to gain much traction in a culture that elevates consumerism, hedonism, and individualism as the highest values.

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The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 8.

Scriptures: John 11: 1-7, 17-25

For a few years, Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was leading a spiritual retreat at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Centre. After the attacks on the towers, the staff of the church provided a place of refuge, safety and comfort for the terrified people who came into the building that day and for the rescue workers in the days afterwards. Archbishop Williams wrote a small book reflecting on the events of that day and the days that followed: Writing in the Dust.

In the introduction to the book, he asks, “After the 11th, what are we prepared to learn?” Ten years later, that questions remains. “Can anything grow through that terrible, terrifying event?” Williams states that he hopes that the answer is “Yes.”

The morning after 9/11, Williams was stopped in the street by a young man who was a pilot and an active Catholic. That young man asked the question that many people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil: “What was God doing when the planes hit the towers?” Williams mumbled something about human freedom. God creates us with free will and does not intervene. God does not just override the choices we make. Living in faith does not mean we escape evil. It means we are given resources to confront it. Through faith, we find a way to suffer, take it forward and then, in God’s own time, to have healed by the grace and mercy of the living God.

Williams knew that whatever he said would be inadequate. Ultimately, he said, this man did not want a theological discussion about free will. This man was a lifelong Christian, committed to a loving and saving God. However, now, for the first time, it had come home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crisis.

Have you been there? If you have not yet, be assured that, the further you go in faith, the more honest you are about life, you will come to a place where God does not do what you want or expect God to do.

That was the hard truth both Martha and Mary faced in this morning’s gospel story. Their brother Lazarus was ill. They sent for their good friend, Jesus, to come to help. But, Jesus did not come. “Lazarus” means “God helps”, except God did not help this family when they need God the most. The writer of the story makes a point of saying that they “dwelt in Bethany”, the “house of affliction”. Their affliction was not just that Lazarus was ill. Their affliction was that the one to whom they looked for help was absent. By the time Jesus showed up, Lazarus had died. In fact, he had been dead four days.

First Martha, and then Mary, confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The same accusation was in the question that the young Catholic man asked: “Where was God when the planes flew into the towers?” We ask it ourselves: Where is God when children die of starvation in Africa? Where is God when someone we love suffers? Surely, if God is good, God should be there to help. God should fix things.

Much of living in faith is a matter of coming to terms with a God who does not meet our expectations. This God does not show up when we really need God to show up. All of us have some burden of suffering which we bear. There is some deep sorrow that hovers in the background of our days. There is some wound that we carry in our hearts that is in varying stages of being healing or refusing to be healed. Hopes and dreams have been shattered. We worry over our children. You can add to the list.

As Christians we know the promises of our Lord. Just before Jesus died, he promised, “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you. I will ask the Father and he will give you a Comforter to be with forever.” The psalms are full of such promises: God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble.” “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place . . . he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” “I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble.”

Martha knew the promises. She knew the promises that the power of God is stronger than death itself. When Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again, she can recite them back to him. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

We know the promises but there are times when the promises seem all to lie in the future. They are some future hope we cling to in spite of all the evidence in the present that defies them.

Or, maybe they all lie in the past. They exist as memories of experiences where we did feel the presence of God, bearing us up as on eagles’ wings, holding us in the palm of God’s hands.

We find ourselves living between those memories and that hope and all we really know of God is the emptiness of God’s absence.

This is a difficult place to be. We want to move through it quickly. We want to have confident faith renewed. We want to move beyond the questions and the doubts and the uncertainties; to move into the promised joy and peace; to get on with being productive again. Instead, we are stuck in that in-between place and we cannot move past it.

The Bible knows a lot about such a space. It calls it by many names: wilderness, exile, the Pit. It is “Holy Saturday”, that time between the agony of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Nothing is happening. Life seems suspended.

Rowan Williams calls this empty place, this void, a “breathing space”. He says that what you need to do in such a breathing space is breathe. You are not to get on with some action as you try to persuade yourself that you really are in control of the situation. You are to breathe. You acknowledge your hurt and disappointment and rage and sense of powerlessness. You let go of the expectations that you had of God. You come to terms with this God who has given you this emptiness, this breathing space. As painful as it is, it is a gift that is filled with God’s grace.

“Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus to Martha. Martha replies, “I know the promises. On the last day, in God’s promised future, my brother will be raised up in the resurrection.” Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life. Now. Here. Already.”

Jesus brings resurrection and life into the midst of the emptiness. In the midst of suffering; in the midst of brokenness; in all the little deaths you die throughout your life, God meets you with resurrection power. In Jesus, God enters into the emptiness and makes it part of God’s holy purpose for your life.

Even the emptiness.

You are baptized with suffering. You go down into the waters of suffering. God raises you to new life. What emerges from the waters of such a baptism is not the old self you had before. You can never go back. You will carry the scars for the rest of your life. But a new self is given by God. You are made new.

It takes courage to enter into such a time. it takes courage to give voice to all that is in your heart. That’s why I keep urging you to learn to pray the Psalms. They are written by people, by a community, that has practiced breathing its faith in the void and the emptiness.

The Psalms teach a language that helps you give voice to your anger and your fears, your hurt and your hopes. They lead you through the evil that you suffer with persistence and honesty. They teach you to yield your life to God. They open you to the healing work of God. Ultimately, they teach to you to praise God again.

They teach you to praise God again in a new song. That new song will carry the sorrow you have known but that sorrow will now be gathered into God’s good and holy purposes for you and for the world.

I want you to learn to pray the psalms because they are such a great gift for your spiritual journey. I want you to learn to pray the psalms because we live our faith in a world full of suffering: not just the global suffering we hear on the news but also the suffering in the lives of people you meet day by day. You may not be able to do much to turn the tide, but your vocation as a follower of Jesus Christ is to be with people in the places of their brokenness. Hear their laments. Help them give voice to them. Prayer with them to God because, in the end, it is God with whom we all must deal.

Stand with them as a member of a community of people who, from the days of our baptisms, have practised dying and being raised to new life in Christ. We are learning to let Christ take us, bless us, break our lives open, and give us life anew. Having trusted Christ to do that in our lives, we give our lives into God’s good hands over and over again.

You can help others hear God say to them in their suffering, “Do not be afraid. Nothing in life or in death — not even this terrible thing you are going through — nothing can stop my loving purpose for you.”

That will be a great gift. That will be a good and holy work. For such holy work, God has claimed you as Christ’s own.

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Where We Live

 A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett.  The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 4.

Scripture: Genesis 2:4b -15

“Where shall I look for enlightenment?” the disciple asked the elder.
“Here,” the elder replied.
“When will it happen?” the disciple wanted to know.

“It is happening right now,” the elder said.
“Then why do I not experience it?”

“Because you do not look.”

“But what should I look for?”
The elder smiled and answered, “Nothing. Just look.”

“But at what?” the disciple insisted.

“Anything your eyes alight upon.”

“Well, then, must I look in a special kind of way?”
“No.”

“Why ever not?”

The elder said quietly, “Because to look, you must be here. The problem is that you are mostly somewhere else.”

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said, “The hardest thing in the world is to be where we are.” It is hard to be where we are because life is hard and we want it to be easier than it is. It is hard to be where we are because the three thousand advertisements we see per day tell us that life — our life— can be better than it is. We deserve more. We deserve the best. All we have to do is to buy the products they are selling: beer, soap, drugs, shampoo, lottery tickets. We can drive a better car. We can impress better people. We can travel to a better place.

“The hardest thing is to be where we are.” Where we are, says Genesis, is the garden in Eden. “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east. And there he put the human he had made.” Genesis 2 tells us that twice in seven verses. “The Lord God took the human and put the human in the garden of Eden.” Perhaps the storyteller was afraid that our minds might be elsewhere. We might be distracted and not know where we live our lives.

When many of us think of the Garden of Eden, we think of a perfect place, of paradise. Since we don’t live in a perfect world, we miss what the storyteller is saying about our lives. The place where humans “are” is Eden. Eden is bounded by four rivers — Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates. We know where the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers are. Use a search engine and they show up on a map. However, nobody knows where Pishon River is. Nobody knows where the Gihon runs. You cannot find them on any maps. Not on the internet. Not in an atlas.

God places us in Eden. Our lives are bounded by the known and the unknown. We live in the midst of visible realities like rivers and maps and trees and buildings and different kinds of soap and beer and shampoo. We also live in the midst of invisible realities like love and forgiveness, truth and humility, hope and mystery. You cannot touch them but they influence our lives in powerful ways.

Generally, we are more comfortable with the visible, concrete, material realities of our lives. They are easier to control and manage. I do not know if it is peculiar to Western culture, or whether it is just human nature, but we tend to like things we can control. At least, we like things that feed our illusion that we are in control. One phone call, one appointment with the doctor, and that illusion dissipates in a flash, but still we cling to the illusion that we can control our lives.

The largest part of our lives — the love, mystery, hope, truth — they are not things we control as much as we experience them. We enter into them. Generally, we do not attend to them as much; however, they influence our lives in deep, profound ways. If we are to live well, we need to drink deeply from the rivers of Pishon and Gihon.

The names of the rivers are plays on words. “Pishon” means “that which spreads out far in the distance”. It is a river that overflows. It floods its banks and destroys home and farms and roads. It is a wild, destructive river.

“Gihon” is also a river that grows. However, it grows in a positive sense. The harmony is large and growing larger. It leads to life and fruitfulness and vitality.

Tigris and Euphrates hold a similar tension. hideqel means sharp, violent, hard, piercing.

pherat means being fruitful, productive. This garden in which God places us includes both positive and negative possibilities.

We live in a wonderful world. We are especially conscious of this as we live in Canada. It is a land of enormous beauty. It has bountiful, productive land. It abounds in amazing diversity. However, this is also a world where one out of three children in Sub-Saharan Africa is dying of hunger. This is a world where earthquakes and tsunamis wipe out whole villages; where refugees crowd into boats that capsize before reaching freedom; where greed and exploitation put whole ecosystems at risk so that the coral reefs around the world are all dying. Eden is a good place but it is not perfect. Bad things can and do happen here. Good and evil are part of the realities of our lives. So are birth and death, harmonious growth and violent destruction.

Any faith worth having is a faith that helps us deal with both realities truthfully and with hope. Said Craig Barnes, “Christians always live carrying in one hand God’s promises of how it will be and, in the other hand, the hard reality of how it is”.  We carry God’s good and holy purposes for us in one hand. We carry the hurts and losses and pain and grief that contradict the goodness and joy and peace that God intends in the other. That’s where we are. “Life isn’t logical or sensible or orderly Life is a mess most of the time. Faith must be lived in the midst of that mess.” (Charles Colson)

That is where we wrestle for faith: which is why it is crucial that the garden is in Eden. Eden, says Genesis, is in the east. The east is where the Messiah, the Saviour, comes from. The word Eden is qedem, which also means “the glory of God”. We live in “the glory of God”. Most of the time we miss it, but that is where we are.

Eden can also mean, “where new beginnings come from”. It can mean “the place where grace comes from”. We live our lives in the midst of God’s glory, in the midst of the new beginnings God is making possible, in the midst of God’s amazing grace. Said C. S. Lewis, “God walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”

Genesis 2 spends a lot of time telling us the lay of the land where we live. It is getting us oriented in the presence of good and evil, of life and death, of fruitfulness and destruction. Much of life consists of negotiating our way among those realities with courage and hope and faith when courage and hope and faith are not easy to come by.

Genesis 2’s most decisive orientation is the one that keeps us awake and alert to God’s gracious presence: we live in Eden, a holy place filled with the glory of God.

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Scripture: John 11: 1-7, 17-25

For a few years, Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was leading a spiritual retreat at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, a few blocks away from the World Trade Centre. After the attacks on the towers, the staff of the church provided a place of refuge, safety and comfort for the terrified people who came into the building that day and for the rescue workers in the days afterwards. Archbishop Williams wrote a small book reflecting on the events of that day and the days that followed: Writing in the Dust.

In the introduction to the book, he asks, “After the 11th, what are we prepared to learn?” Ten years later, that question remains. “Can anything grow through that terrible, terrifying event?” Williams states that he hopes that the answer is “Yes.”

The morning after 9/11, Williams was stopped in the street by a young man who was a pilot and an active Catholic. That young man asked the question that many people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil: “What was God doing when the planes hit the towers?” Williams mumbled something about human freedom. God creates us with free will and does not intervene. God does not just override the choices we make. Living in faith does not mean we escape evil. It means we are given resources to confront it. Through faith, we find a way to suffer, take it forward and then, in God’s own time, to have it healed by the grace and mercy of the living God.

Williams knew that whatever he said would be inadequate. Ultimately, he said, this man did not want a theological discussion about free will. This man was a lifelong Christian, committed to a loving and saving God. However, now, for the first time, it had come home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crisis.

Have you been there? If you have not yet, be assured that, the further you go in faith, the more honest you are about life, you will come to a place where God does not do what you want or expect God to do.

That was the hard truth both Martha and Mary faced in this morning’s gospel story. Their brother Lazarus was ill. They sent for their good friend, Jesus, to come to help. But Jesus did not come. “Lazarus” means “God helps”, except God did not help this family when they needed God the most. The writer of the story makes a point of saying that they “dwelt in Bethany”, the “house of affliction”. Their affliction was not just that Lazarus was ill. Their affliction was that the one to whom they looked for help was absent. By the time Jesus showed up, Lazarus had died. In fact, he had been dead four days.

First Martha, and then Mary, confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The same accusation was in the question that the young Catholic man asked: “Where was God when the planes flew into the towers?” We ask it ourselves: Where is God when children die of starvation in Africa? Where is God when someone we love suffers? Surely, if God is good, God should be there to help. God should fix things.

Much of living in faith is a matter of coming to terms with a God who does not meet our expectations. This God does not show up when we really need God to show up. All of us have some burden of suffering which we bear. There is some deep sorrow that hovers in the background of our days. There is some wound that we carry in our hearts that is in varying stages of being healing or refusing to be healed. Hopes and dreams have been shattered. We worry over our children. You can add to the list.

As Christians we know the promises of our Lord. Just before Jesus died, he promised, “I will not leave you orphaned; i will come to you. I will ask the Father and he will give you a Comforter to be with forever.” The psalms are full of such promises: “God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place . . . he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways . . . I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble” (Psalm 91).

Martha knew the promises. She knew the promises that the power of God is stronger than death itself. When Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again, she can recite them back to him. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

We know the promises but there are times when the promises seem all to lie in the future. They are some future hope we cling to in spite of all the evidence in the present that defies them.

Or, maybe they all lie in the past. They exist as memories of experiences where we did feel the presence of God, bearing us up as on eagles’ wings, holding us in the palm of God’s hands.

We can find ourselves living between those memories and that hope and all we really know of God is the emptiness of God’s absence.

This is a difficult place to be. We want to move through it quickly. We want to have confident faith renewed. We want to move beyond the questions and the doubts and the uncertainties; to move into the promised joy and peace; to get on with being productive again. Instead, we are stuck in that in-between place and we cannot move past it.

The Bible knows a lot about such a space. It calls it by many names: wilderness, exile, the Pit. It is “Holy Saturday”, that time between the agony of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Nothing is happening. Life seems suspended.

Rowan Williams calls this empty place, this void, a “breathing space”. He says that what you need to do in such a breathing space is breathe. You are not to get on with some action as you try to persuade yourself that you really are in control of the situation. You are to breathe. You acknowledge your hurt and disappointment and rage and sense of powerlessness. You let go of the expectations that you had of God. You come to terms with this God who has given you this emptiness, this breathing space. As painful as it is, it is a gift that is filled with God’s grace.

“Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus to Martha. Martha replies, “I know the promises. On the last day, in God’s promised future, my brother will be raised up in the resurrection.” Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life. Now. Here. Already.”

Jesus brings resurrection and life into the midst of the emptiness. In the midst of suffering; in the midst of brokenness; in all the little deaths you die throughout your life, God meets us with resurrection power. In Jesus, God enters into the emptiness and makes it part of God’s holy purpose for your life.

Even the emptiness.

You are baptized with suffering. You go down into the waters of suffering. God raises you to new life. What emerges from the waters of such a baptism is not the old self you had before. You can never go back. You may carry the scars for the rest of your life. But a new self is given by God. You are made new.

It takes courage to enter into such a time. it takes courage to give voice to all that is in your heart. That’s why I keep urging you to learn to pray the Psalms. They are written by people, by a community, that has practiced breathing its faith in the void and the emptiness.

The Psalms teach a language that helps you give voice to your anger and your fears, your hurt and your hopes. They lead you through the evil that you suffer with persistence and honesty. They teach you to yield your life to God. They open you to the healing work of God. Ultimately, they teach to you to praise God again.

They teach you to praise God again in a new song. That new song will carry the sorrow you have known but it will now be gathered into God’s good and holy purposes for you and for the world.

I want you to learn to pray the psalms because they are such a great gift for your spiritual journey. I want you to learn to pray the psalms because we live our faith in a world full of suffering: not just the global suffering we hear on the news but also the suffering in the lives of people you meet day by day. You may not be able to do much to turn the tide, but your vocation as a follower of Jesus Christ is to be with people in the places of their brokenness. Hear their laments. Help them give voice to them. Pray with them to God because, in the end, it is God with whom we all must deal.

Stand with them as a member of a community of people who, from the days of our baptisms, have practised dying and being raised to new life in Christ. We are learning to let Christ take us, bless us, break our lives open, and give us life anew. Having trusted Christ to do that in our lives, we give our lives into his good hands over and over again.

You can help others hear God say to them in their suffering, “Do not be afraid. Nothing in life or in death — not even this terrible thing you are going through — nothing can stop my loving purpose for you.”

That will be a great gift. That will be a good and holy work. For such holy work, God has claimed you as Christ’s own.

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On the first Sunday of the year, the Methodist leader, John Wesley, invited Methodists to renew their covenant with God. As part of the service, the people were invited to stand and say together:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will; rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for your or brought low for you:
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me hall al things, let me have nothing;
I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

In the course of one’s discipleship over the year, the commitments you have made to God can suffer a lot of wear and tear. Promises that you made to God were not always kept. Life may have dealt you some hard blows and there were periods when God seemed absent. Sometimes, you were able to handle things pretty well on your own and you let your relationship with God slide. It is helpful, then, at least once a year, to renew the covenant you have made with God.

When I have included this prayer in worship as part of a covenant renewal service, some people have asked me about the phrase “put me to suffering”. They wanted to know what was meant by it. Why would anyone ask for suffering? Life is hard sometimes. It seems quite capable of providing us with lots of suffering on its own without asking God for more.

The question is a good one. It is a strange prayer. We live in a culture that works hard to avoid suffering of any kind. Furthermore, we have learned to be deeply suspicious about calls for personal sacrifice.

Sometimes we have good cause to be suspicious. Too often, people with religious power have told people that they ought to accept their suffering silently when enduring abuse from others. What the Church ought to have done was to give people the courage to protest loudly against injustice and abuse.

Yet, there is an element of suffering that comes with following Jesus with which we must deal and for which we must find adequate resources. When Jesus invited people to follow him, he warned them:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lost it, and those who love their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it” (Mark 8:34 – 9:1).

Jesus was gathering recruits for a revolution: a revolution of good against the forces of evil, of love against the forces of hate and indifference. The weapons of the revolution are words of truth spoken against lies and deeds of courage and love. Those weapons lead disciples of Jesus into suffering. God is serious about overcoming evil and evil does not give up easily or without a fight.

Speak words of truth to people in power and you will often pay a high price. A doctor doing research on a new drug notices that it is doing more harm than good. When the drug company that is sponsoring the clinical trial will not listen to his concerns, he goes public with them. The hospital Board suspends the doctor. An accountant notices illegal practices int he company’s books. She brings it to the attention of her employers. They consult lawyers on how to get rid of her. A man confronts his boss about unethical behaviour in the organization and the boss conspires to make the working conditions so difficult that the man quits.

You don’t need to go looking for suffering. Truth-telling makes its own.

Why do it? Why pay the price of love and truth? Why not just walk away, keep silent, say nothing? What is at stake is life and dignity and freedom. What is at stake is our part in Jesus’ revolution. What is at stake is our very selves.

Most of us in North America will not be killed for our faith. For most of us, the shape of faithful suffering will come through the small decisions we make to act with integrity when it would be easier to lie and compromise. Our suffering will take the form of speaking up when we are being pressured to stay silent. It will come as we refuse to go along with the crowd when ‘the crowd’ is acting unjustly. It will come as we stand up to people who are abusing power.

We will not always do what the love and truth of Jesus requires of us. We will fall short and fail. We live by the grace of God. It is a good thing, then, to return from time to time to the place of covenant and submit ourselves again to God’s mercy and forgiveness and redeeming, transforming love. It is there that we shall find the courage we shall need to face the suffering that comes as part of Christ’s revolution of love and truth.

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The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible — to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love.”   Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses, p. 152

I wonder what difference it would make in our churches if this were the operating assumption of what it means to be a member of  a congregation? We’re pretty committed to being ‘as comfortable as possible’ in our culture. This description of the life of faith is so countercultural. And yet, I find that people in the pews do appreciate it when sermons are deep enough to deal with ‘the reality of life’ and when we struggle together to ‘discover truth’. People do want to be part of a community that acts out love and creates beauty. Most of us would just prefer to do all that while ‘being as comfortable as possible’!

So much of my praying consists of wrestling with God about ‘the reality of life’, especially the parts where I have been hurt by the actions of other people and by my own inadequate responses to those actions. Those experiences have invited me to become deeper on many levels — more relentlessly focused on trusting God in all things, wiser about human sinfulness, less naive about the presence of evil in the world, more aware of my weaknesses and strengths. This is the way of life on which Jesus is leading me; however, I often feel out of touch with a culture that is so focused on pursuing one’s own happiness and comfort. The psalmists are great company on this path — they express not only great joy but also great anguish as they deal with the reality of life. They explore all of life in the context of God’s sovereign goodness and grace. They are better guides than those who would have us avoid or escape any unhappiness.

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