A Perspective on Suffering

With doom and gloom seeping from strident voices, we American Christians often hear that one day we may be called upon to suffer for our faith. Before you say “we already suffer for our faith when we can’t pray in schools/speak up for our faith in the public square, etc.,” may I remind you of the deeper meaning of the word suffer: to be made to undergo, endure, be subjected to pain, death, punishment, judgment, grief. Yes, many of us have undergone deep wounds of the body or soul. We all know friends or family members who deeply suffer from the pain of horrific disease. Some live with nearly unbearable loneliness. Others, with agonizing suffering, mourn the death of a loved one.

But to suffer—to be subjected to pain, death, pain, punishment—for our Christian belief is largely unknown here in the West. When talking about and praying for the thousands of refugees fleeing from their bombed homes and businesses, from the evil that has stolen family members, a friend commented, “I just can’t imagine how bad it must finally be to risk death on the sea, then walk endless miles while carrying babies, the clothes on your back your only possession. I just can’t imagine.” These words from poet Warsan Shire might forge imagination into reality:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the 
whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when hone won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet

hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing…

Dr. Craig Barnes writes: When people joined the church during the first three centuries, they were pledging themselves to be part of a persecuted community. They knew that could cost them their lives…they developed baptismal liturgies that were essentially funeral services. (I wonder how small our “new members” classes would be if we included that pledge??)

This commitment marked their lives: Once church members received (this) life they could never lose, it made them fearless to proclaim the gospel boldly… they had already died to the only life persecutors could take from them…it’s impossible to scare people who have already died!

As years go by, I find myself desiring comfort, tempted to ease an ache or pain by an OTC or prescribed pill. Whining that once known energy decreases. Don’t make me wait in line. Why must an appliance wear out so quickly? But I also want my soul unruffled. Don’t prick my personal balloon with thorns of the sick and suffering. Don’t give me books that graphically describe the horrors of war. I prefer sermons that gently, oh so gently, steer me on the right path. I’m not at all excited about those like Isaiah’s, paraphrased here by Eugene Peterson: Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious game… You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. (Isaiah 1:13-17) That kind of sermon might keep me away from church!

I’ve read that when people in one country commit themselves to following Christ, part of their discipleship process includes learning how to jump out of a jail’s second floor window without breaking their legs. We, at another extreme, are uncomfortable if the temperature in the church is too high or low on any given Sunday.

Suffering? Perhaps its time to review what the Apostle Peter said to the early Christians: Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world.

If you are insulted because you bear the name of Christ, you will be blessed… it is no shame to suffer for being a Christian. Praise God for the privilege of being called by his name!… So if you are suffering in a manner that pleases God, keep on doing what is right, and trust your lives to the God who created you, for he will never fail you.

How desperately my perspective, attitude and actions need to change: Don’t be surprised…be very glad…wonderful joy…blessed…praise God…keep on doing what is right…trust God…

Heidelberg to Colorado via Bonn

BelongingSlipping into a long black skirt and dressy white blouse prior to attending yet another fancy reception at one of Bonn’s upscale venues, I tried to put on courage as well as clothing. People would hold glasses of wine as they mingled, small talk carried along by the breeze of appropriateness. Diplomats attended to make contacts that might one day prove helpful to their embassies and ultimately their countries. We attended, however, to honor acquaintances and meet people in order to develop relationships that would ultimately lead not to the advancement of our personal desires, but to become friends. Hopefully they would come to see Jesus in us, and ultimately understand the Christ who offers healing that governments cannot.

During our early years in Bonn, these events were exciting and I loved meeting new people from various cultures, several becoming precious friends. But after a year-long bout with an elusive illness that often left me drained from even the most casual conversation, those two hours of mingling became a horrendous challenge. I preferred to be home, curled up with a book. And one basic emotion screamed within: “I DON’T BELONG HERE!”

When I read the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism: ”What is your only comfort in life and in death?” and then saw the startling answer: “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,” the truckload of gold—liquid gold!—mentioned in last week’s blog, poured over me.

I BELONG! I don’t have to pretend to be part of a group. No more wondering if I speak, act, live like others in order to be accepted. Money, education, status, occupation are not prerequisites for this belonging. At a much deeper level, I need never wonder if God is waiting for me to get cleaned up enough to meet his standards. Nothing I do can make God love me more. Or less. Craig Barnes writes, It was never up to us to work hard enough to find a life we would want to keep. It was never up to us to hold loved ones close enough to ensure that we would never lose them or be left alone… In God’s hands, nothing, and no one, is ever lost. Our only comfort.*

Much of the rest of the catechism will no doubt baffle me. I anticipate arguing with many of its statements. But for now I will rest in belonging “body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” One of my favorite hymns—made such through streaming tears—echoes my response: It is well, it is well, with my soul.**

*Body and Soul, Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism, Dr. M. Craig Barnes

**It Is Well by Horacio Spafford, 1873

From Heidelberg to Colorado

Heidelberg Conf.Dr. Barry Fagin, an occasional contributor to the Colorado Springs Gazette op ed page, said it best. “Some columns just write themselves.” That’s how I feel about the topic of this week’s blog. Last week I sat with about a dozen others to begin discussing the Heidelberg Confession/Catechism. A cradle Baptist, I’d rarely heard about this profound document until twenty years ago when we joined hands with a delightful group of Presbyterians. (Many of whom were also born and raised in what I presumed to be a “Who-needs-a-confession? We-have-the-Bible!” denomination.)

Drawn to this discussion primarily because I knew the teacher to be a woman whose feet are firmly planted in Scripture, whose mind is rich with intellectual prowess, and whose humor unexpectedly sneaks into most conversations, I suspected the experience might uncover a few gold nuggets. What I didn’t foresee was an entire semi truckload of gold spilled into my soul that first night.

To others for whom the HC/C might be unfamiliar, here’s the Marilyn version: In the 16th century, German Lutherans and Swiss Reformers decided to get together in an old castle church in Heidelberg, Germany to hammer out their differences. (Has nothing changed??) Even as I type that explanation, I can hear Reformed clergy groaning at my impertinent, condensed account. “What can you expect from a Baptist?”

The Confession is a series of 129 questions and answers which children and adults, new to the faith and desperately needing a firm biblical foundation for that faith, were required to memorize. Yes, memorize! Many churches of the Reformed persuasion continue in this path, some more faithfully than others. Our teacher warned us that we wouldn’t agree with everything believed and written by those Heidelberg professors and clergy, but our arguments wouldn’t have swerved them and we would do well to carefully examine any current dissension.

Let me digress for one moment. A Washington, DC pastor charged with teaching the Confession to Presbyterian adolescents was exasperated with their eye-rolling, do-we-have-to resistance, their steady and vehement complaints. Until the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Five days later they stood in front of the congregation and solemnly raised their voices to affirm their faith in the light of, in spite of tragedy, death and destruction. They had no answers to the horror, but they claimed the faith affirmed a half millennium earlier.

So what hit me with slam dunk force the other night? Or after reading 400+ words, do you even care?? To prevent, or at least forestall, boredom, I’m going to employ the device known to the writers of Hawaii Five 0 and CSI: TO BE CONTINUED!

Recipes and Memories

RecipesMy mother had few sentimental genes. Finished with formal schooling at age ten, she began cleaning houses to supplement a meager family income. After the death of her husband, when the “estate” left next to nothing for survival, she returned to menial work once again. She probably never heard—or if heard would not have understood—the term “mantra,” but God, family, hard work and generosity were syllables whispered often providing fuel through hard times. When she died at age 81, I—her only child—became the owner of her small house, and after selling her household goods and the car, approximately $1500 in cash remained to divide between her two adult step-children and myself. Few tangible keepsakes could be distributed to the grandchildren, but memories of unqualified love and acceptance and lots of good meals were distributed via her unwritten will.

Except… While going through Mother’s cupboards after her death, I found a few recipes written on cards and one or two recipe books with splattered pages. Memories returned like a flash flood. Mrs. Coulter’s Chocolate Cake. 14-Day Sweet Pickles. Seven Minute Frosting. Dill Pickles. Not many cards and one or two books, those few now in our daughter’s possession. Most recipes rested in her head and thus I have no idea how she made that delicious fried chicken which sizzled in a cast iron pan early on Sunday morning, to be then tucked into the oven and ready for after-church dinner.

These thoughts came tumbling back the other day as I opened my laptop computer to find a recipe for date bars. Again when I returned to the electronic world to find new ingredients for pork cutlets. Oh yes, I have a recipe box stuffed with a few of my own splattered cards, especially old standards like chocolate chip cookies (updated for high altitude!), banana bread, refrigerator dills, pie crust. But stuffed into most sections of the box are those recipes I copied from a magazine or newspaper or ones I begged off friends. And rarely used! My children will inherit even fewer “hard copy” recipes than I did, and I’m guessing that situation will be even more common as the technological years fly by.

But I don’t mourn this lack of food mementoes from my mother, nor the fact that my children will inherit only a few from me. While it would be nice to have more written records of that delicious food from my childhood, far more important are the memories which cannot be lost, ignored or stolen. Fresh-from-the- garden produce. Date filling between two sugar cookies. Dark chocolate cake with fluffy white (seven minute!) frosting for every birthday. Chicken noodle soup. And those pickles…