Monday, May 27, 2013

Suffering. Who Needs It?

Romans 5: 1-5
Paul was a bold and verbose proclaimer of Jesus Christ in the time of the Roman Empire when pax Romana or the peace of Rome meant something entirely different than did the peace of God; where his understanding of justice differed greatly from Caesar’s.  Going against the empire – never good if you are looking for an easy life, in fact it can produce much anxiety and suffering and I think Paul suffered.  So he shares his understanding of what it means to live as a Christ follower in disparate times in the 5th chapter of Romans.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

These words, ‘suffering produces endurance…endurance produces character…character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us’ are familiar words that are used often to help us bear our burdens and bolster our faith in times of severe adversity.  And while that’s good, Paul seems to want to want to get from suffering to hope rather quickly.  He seems so sure that when you suffer that it’ll all be ok, all will be well.  And to boast in our suffering?  Well that just sounds crazy to me.

We all will suffer at some point in our life, it is inevitable.  And we know that suffering doesn’t always produce endurance and hope, at least not right away.  Suffering sometimes produce, anxiety, anger, sadness and pain, well ahead of endurance arriving.  Paul forgets to tell us how to live into the tragedy and effectively walk through our pain.  So what do we do in the meantime?  How do we carry on when the unimaginable happens around us or to us.  Where do we find that hope that he promises us?

It’s not as if we haven’t had our share of tragic events to deal with lately.  I was looking at the Atlantic Magazine’s ‘In-Focus’ a news-photo blog on the internet.  They had photographs from last week’s tornado in Oklahoma.  The photos were quite moving and sad to see, especially the faces of the children being pulled from rubble filled with fear and uncertainty.

As a child growing up in St. Louis, Missouri I can remember seeing the skies darken into an eerie greenish-black, and hearing the tornado siren alert blasting loudly throughout the neighborhood.  I can remember our teacher telling us to hide under our desks, not that after seeing the photos this past week, would have done us any good at all.  I can remember the anxiety until it was all over and the sirens stopped and the sky cleared up. 
What I cannot imagine however, because I never experienced it as a child, is what happened in Oklahoma to the children and folks of Moore – the rushing winds, the devastation, the roar and the fear, the weeping, the suffering that many are now going through at the loss of family or their homes and belongings, their loss of all that gave normalcy to very life itself.

And yet, it didn’t take long for stories of courage to emerge.  I want to share with you some stories of courage and hope that a friend shared with me.

From AgapeLand Learning Center: "…According to a report from The New York Times, the staff at AgapeLand Learning Center, a daycare facility, was watching over some 15 children when the tornado struck. Staffers began "draping them with a protective covering and singing songs with them to keep them calm,"…."as the wind ripped the roof off one of the bathrooms, and debris rained down on the children, they remained calm, singing 'You Are My Sunshine,'" ….the daycare facility was smashed to pieces, not one child was harmed."

Another teacher from Briarwood Elementary, Julie Simon: "She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down,"….."a source says the teacher at Briarwood Elementary in Oklahoma City took students into a closet and shielded them with her arms as the tornado collapsed the roof and starting lifting children upward."

Sherry Bittle and Cindy Lowe, teachers from Briarwood Elementary: "….along with teachers at the now-obliterated Briarwood, also shielded students with their own bodies. Bittle said, "I had them take their backpacks and put them over their head…. Lowe added that as the walls were coming down….she, too, tried to protect as many kids as she could: "Just like Sherry said, getting them covered up, you know, we practice tornado drills and things like this and I had to tell them, this is not a drill, and we need to be safe and just laying my body on top of as many kids as I could to help out." All the students at Briarwood were accounted for as of Tuesday.

Another teacher from Plaza Towers Elementary: "A sixth-grade teacher at Plaza Towers, Crosswhite threw herself over students who were hiding in the school bathroom as the tornado ripped it to shreds. "I was in a stall with some kids and it just started coming down, so I laid on top of them," Crosswhite told the reporter this morning. "One of my little boys just kept saying, 'I love you, I love you, please don't die with me.'" The children Crosswhite protected are now safe.”

And finally regarding a teacher from Plaza Towers Elementary:
 "We had to pull a car out of the front hall off a teacher and I don't know what her name is, but she had three little kids underneath her," a rescuer is quoted as saying in a story from CNN's LZ Granderson. Yes, you read that right, rescuers pulled a car off a teacher who was shielding students from harm. And she seemed to survive, as the rescue worker told KFOR, via Today: "'Good job, teach,' he said, breaking into tears."[i]

Remarkable stories.  You see the commonality in all of these stories is that God was fully embodied in the actions and love of the teachers who physically sheltered the children.  Those children and teachers were not alone to undergo the tornado, God was totally with them protecting them, covering them from fall debris.  We are reminded of God’s love in Psalm 91, “For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover with his pinions, and under God’s wings you will find refuge; God’s faithfulness is a shield and buckler. (3-4) Under God’s wings.

God will spread sheltering arms around us when we are suffering, when we are being hit by ravaging winds of life.  We are never left by ourselves in our pain and torment, God is there with sheltering protective wings.

I don’t believe we need to suffer in order to have character and hope but we certainly can find hope in the midst of our suffering.  There is a spiritual transformation that can happen through suffering, to be sure our suffering is never wasted.   In fact the greatest potential of suffering is to define more fully our faith and refine our character that God gave us from birth.  God can transform even the worst of human situations into something for good.  Herein lies our hope and hope never disappoints us.


[i] Stories shared on Facebook, unknown sorces.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Leaves of Healing, River of Peace

Revelation 22: 1-5
Yesterday I had friends for NYC up for the day and we went walking in Wepawaug Conservation Area off of Maplewood.  It was spectacular.  The forest boasted so many varieties of green trees just bursting out in blossom.  As a painter you notice colors and light from spring green to celadon green to Hookers green and Phthalo green a blooming forest seems to call out every green imaginable.  So hopeful and peaceful.
 Wepawaug Conservation Area, Orange Connecticut
Our scripture for today is (again) from the Book of Revelation, is about just that.  Green leaves, variety, peace and hope.  Now Revelation is quite a visual book and you don’t always think ‘peace’ when you read it.  It is a confusing book.  There are cosmic wars, visions, seals being opened to reveal apocalyptic revelation, it has blasting trumpets and seven headed beasts.  For our 21st century sensibilities it is difficult to get clarity on what the author really meant, and scholars viewpoints vary, as do the leaves on the trees on crisp and hopeful spring day.

Although, we can try to put it into context.  It was the end of the first century and Rome was a religious and political force to be reckoned with, probably under the rule of the emperor Domitian.  With Domitian came an enhanced imperial cult mentality in which there was the belief that the emperor was divine and would insure the well being of the inhabitants and the state.

Christians and Jews viewed this ideology as pure idolatry, which put them at huge odds with the empire.  They were in turn viewed as great enemies of the state.  So by the time the author of Revelation puts quill to papyrus, they were in desperate need for a message of healing and peace.

So let us paint a picture in our minds of what peace can look like from the Book of Revelation.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.”
‘And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’. This passage is one of the more beautiful and peaceful passages of scripture in the entire Bible and it’s entitled the ‘Tree of Life’.  One of my earliest botanical paintings was of this very passage where an image of one continuous vine with leaves of green twined together twelve varieties of fruit.  It gave me pause to think of how this might just work, this passage, ‘And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ For surely as many varieties of greens there are within a one leaf there must be a variety of ways in which we can heal our nations and come to terms with peace.  Even though one vine grows different fruits.

Revelation tries.  Picture a city and through the middle of a city flows a river that is filled with the water of soul refreshing, heart renewing life.  It was as vivid as it could be, bright as crystal that is clean and sparkling.  And the river’s source is the throne of God.

And the river is lined on both of the banks with the tree of life bearing twelve different sorts of fruits.  Apples, Oranges, Pomegranates, Pears, and Almonds.  So life giving they are because their leaves provide shade for a weary soul, their trunks a place for the traveler to lean their aching back against, and the fruit is the sustenance of life.  Wisdom abounds.  Nourishment is abundant and life is valued and at peace.

And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Nations then, nations now still are in need of healing.

Last Friday was the National Day of Prayer and the Orange Interfaith Clergy gathered down at High Plains to pray together.  Rabbis, pastors, civic leaders offered prayers for our country, for the world, for our military, our leaders, our education, almost all of the prayers, if not all, at some point begged the God of us all for peace. 

Peace is difficult to define and one’s practice of religion has a great deal to say about what peace is and how peace can be achieved.  As individuals we must be instruments of that peace as it speaks to us Christians in a pluralistic world.

I heard a very interesting interview on ‘Morning Edition’ on NPR sometime last year.  Salman Rushdie was being interviewed on his new memoir that has just come out, Joseph Anton. I heard him speak in 2005 at Fairfield University and was quite impressed by his thought process.  The memoir is about his life and experience in hiding for 12 years after the release of his other book, The Satanic Verses.  He said,

“My purpose was not to write about Islam; it was to talk about the nature of revelation, and also to suggest that when a big, new idea comes into the world, it must answer two challenges; One is the challenge of how do you behave when you’re weak?  And the other, how do you behave when you’re strong?” he says.  “When you’re weak, do you bend, do you compromise?  Or are you [unyielding] and firm?  And when you’re strong, when you’re victorious, are you cruel and vengeful, or are you merciful and forgiving?”

Good question.  When a new idea or a new opportunity comes along, and they do each day, if you are weak do you respond by giving in?  Or are you vengeful toward others?  

What if peace were the new idea in the world or in this community or in this church?  I mean a true and everlasting peace, not just the cessation of war or dissention.  A peace or shalom that surrounds each and every individual in each and every nation with wholeness. 

A peace that creates a non-threatening existence so that the dignity of each person is maintained, what if?  This new idea peace, if weak, will bend and break and not make it.  But if it is a strong and everlasting peace it will forgive and strive to create tolerance, cohesiveness in our differences, and a truth of love that all people can hear and understand.

We Christians can answer Rushdie’s challenge too.  When we are weak we look to the Lord of Light who sits at the source of the river and let the waters flow around us lapping up strength and refreshment to be healed.  And when we are strong we can look also and again to the Lord God of light and be merciful and forgiving like Christ.

There is a challenge and a choice for making peace, and God is there to help us make the God-infused, shalom-steeped, peace-packed choice.

Peace has been around for ages but an everlasting peace, well that is a new idea and it begins with you.  Let us hold this image from Revelation within our hearts and minds. And let us be bold enough to speak truth with humility and respect, to look to the source of our being that is God so that we can be the peace that will heal this world.  If the leaves of the trees can be for the healing of the nations, then ultimately we can too.

May it be so!