Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

By Bread Alone

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”   Luke 4:1-4

Accounts of the temptation of Jesus are recorded in Matthew (4:1-11), Mark (1:12-13), and Luke (4:1-13). After Jesus had been baptized by John, he went into the wilderness for 40 days. Matthew and Luke record that Jesus was fasting during that time. The devil met Jesus there and issued three temptations when Jesus was at his weakest from the extended fast. The first challenge was to turn a stone into bread. The second was to receive authority over all the kingdoms of the world in return for worshiping the devil. Finally, Jesus was encouraged to throw himself onto the rocks from the pinnacle of the Temple, knowing that God would protect him. Jesus refused each of the temptations, left the wilderness, and began his public ministry.

Whether one reads this account as a factual or a metaphorical account is beyond the purpose of this Life Note. What I address here is how the temptations of Jesus are about the use of personal power, and how these are temptations we too face, in endless variations, throughout our lives. If the life of Jesus is the standard for our life, we have much to learn from how he used, and refused to use, the power at his disposal.

Although scripture does not give a reason for the fast, it seems safe to assume it was a part of Jesus’ preparation for his ministry. The first challenge was to use his power to turn a stone into bread and end his fast. On the one hand, if I were hungry and had such power, it would be difficult not to use it in that way. Unfortunately, that would betray his purpose for fasting and nullify the benefits from the difficulties he had already endured. Jesus’ response is “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4).

The second temptation was to betray his lineage, as revealed by God at his baptism (“You are my son, the Beloved”). By reflecting anything less than the Father, Jesus could not fulfill his purpose of making God known to us. We are frequently encouraged to settle for something less than what we strive for, and we are given the power to settle through our free will. It is not that God will no longer love us if we settle for less, it is that we will disappoint ourselves for giving in, as well as failing to accomplish that which we set out to achieve. Jesus’ response is “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Luke 4:8).

The third temptation was to do damage to his physical body on the assumption God would keep him safe. After all, God had a huge purpose for Jesus in the world. We know God takes us where we are, in whatever shape we are in, and uses us for purposes beyond our comprehension. Even if angels did not save Jesus from the rocks below, surely God would find a way to use him. This temptation was about showing how low we can sink and still have God lift us up. Jesus’ response is “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:13).

It is in our most vulnerable moments when we are tempted to use whatever means are available to ease our suffering, regardless of whether we believe we are tempted by the devil, by human nature, or our own personal weakness. The end does not justify the means when it comes to personal holiness. Patience, trust, and faith are required. The way out is by going through the difficulty, not by taking shortcuts around it. Inevitably, at some point or points in our lives, we will find ourselves in a metaphorical wilderness: hungry, alone, and tempted. In our weakest moments, it is helpful to remember how Jesus handled temptation: by persisting after our prayerfully-determined aims, by being as faithful to God as God is to us, and by treating our bodies as God’s temple. God’s strength manifests in our weakness.

This is the 9th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.  1 Peter 4:11

My father received a book from his home church when he joined the military during World War II. The book contains devotions for each day of the year written by the pastors of churches throughout the United States. Harold Cooke Phillips, from the First Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, wrote the devotion for September 29, titled The Strong Soldier. In part, Reverend Phillips wrote:

There are two types of strength. There is the strength of the wind that sways the mighty oak, and there is the strength of the oak that withstands the power of the wind. There is the strength of the locomotive that pulls the heavy train across the bridge, and there is the strength of the bridge that holds up the weight of the train. One is active strength, the other is passive strength; one is the power to keep going, the other is the power to keep still; one is the strength by which we overcome, the other is the strength by which we endure.

Different situations in life call for different types of strength. Sometimes, our best option is to suffer through a situation with all the patient endurance we can muster. For time-bound suffering – cancer treatments, broken relationships, and grief – healing requires the passage of time, and no amount of active strength is going to hasten the process. Other times we must supply the power to actively move something out of our lives. Often, both types of strength are required at different stages of a life situation.

There are those who confuse the power of endurance with weakness. They feel the need to always be proactive, to fight fire with fire, to enter the fray with every ounce of force they possess. Certainly, some situations call for that sort of determination. Other times, however, such raw and blind power leaves a path of utter destruction in its wake with little to show for the devastation. A bull in a china closet comes to mind.

The author of the first letter of Peter says, “…whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies.” Some days we need to be the train, other days the bridge; one day the wind, the next day the oak. Our challenge is to discern the type of strength required for a given situation and know that God will supply the strength needed.

Come home to church this Sunday. Remain calm and power on.

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Cures That Do not Heal

Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Matthew 10:8

On the afternoons of my recent mission trip to Honduras, several of us led Vacation Bible School for the kids. It was a blessing to have fun with the children, even though we could not understand most of what they said. For my daughter, Grace, and me, the interactions with the children were among the most enjoyable.

Honduran homesThe picture on the left is of three Honduran homes located beside the church where we worked. On the left, above and below, are two homes, with a third under the tin roof on the right. More homes are in the background. Although the condition of these homes is worse than some we saw, this scene is common. There were two boys in Bible School who lived next door to these houses. Angel and Daniel, aged about 6 and 4, were happy, cute, well-behaved, slightly ornery boys, not unlike typical youngsters in my hometown. They did not appear undernourished or under-loved, and I have no reason to believe they were. They lived in conditions like those pictured, however. I did not see the inside of their home, but it is likely they had little of the “stuff” we consider necessary for a normal upbringing in the U.S. Did they have TVs or Internet access? Could they watch movies or play video games?

Grace and I talked about how easy it would be to “rescue” one or more of these children into our home, where they would have access to our abundance. Wouldn’t their lives be improved? As the week progressed, the answer seemed clear: No, probably not. Different, yes; better, no. One of the many realizations I made in Honduras is that our “first world” lives are largely lived vicariously in the past and the future. We relive the past and dream of the future, often missing the present moment. Many Hondurans do not have that luxury. The realities of their environment force them to live in the moment, focusing on the needs of now – food, water, work, togetherness, etc. – so there is little energy left to regret the past or ponder the future.

We worry about the future of Angel, Daniel, and the other children. Will they become victims of the prevalent gang violence? Will they be sold into sex trafficking? Will they live their entire lives in housing conditions like these? We cannot know. We also rejoice, however, in the pure joy Angel, Daniel, and the other kids found in the moments of Bible School. Singing, coloring, jumping rope, kicking a soccer ball – they savored moments fully. Their depth of being and their joy in fellowship with us and the other children was beautiful and inspiring. I doubt that could be duplicated here.

I am convinced the solution to the dilemmas in Honduras is not to (north) “Americanize” the people. Rather, we must find ways to preserve the uniquely beautiful parts of their lives and culture, while moderating the violence and poverty that so endanger them. Otherwise, the cures we export may be worse than the illnesses we attempt to heal.

Come home to church this Sunday. Join with others to heal our broken world.

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The Desperation of Poverty, Part 3

For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. Mark 14:7

I live a fortunate and blessed life. I have never had to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether I would have a roof over my head. I have always had people in my life who loved and valued me. I confess this so you know I do not write about poverty from first-hand experience. I have observed it from a distance on a few occasions – most recently in Honduras – but I have never lived in poverty, nor do I have a desire to do so. In Life Notes the past few weeks, I have written about the desperation I observed from the poverty in Honduras.

All four Gospels accounts have Jesus saying something to the effect that the poor will always be with us. Some use this to argue that there is nothing effective we can do to address poverty – and they may be right, at least on a global scale. I think, however, they miss the point. Certainly, poverty is a pervasive issue, but it is also an individual faith issue. Whenever we encounter poverty, suffering, or human struggles, we have decisions to make. Can I help this person or situation? If I can, am I willing to help this person or situation?

A third manifestation of the desperation of poverty is personal – it is my desperation to understand how I can best help. Many of us, me included, regularly walk past people asking for money on our streets. There are reasons why we do that, some of which have a measure of validity. If I give money to everyone who asks, how long will it be before I am on the streets begging for money? What if I give them money, and they buy drugs or alcohol with it? I work hard for my money, and they should, too. How do I really know these people are worse off than I am? These are pretentious questions, however, because in most cases we cannot know the answer. Again, we miss the point of being confronted by the poor. The point is how we decide to respond, and how we justify that choice. I am less convinced there is a right answer to the question and more convinced the poor pose a universal conundrum meant to illicit serious soul-searching on our parts – individually and collectively.

We are not called to solve world poverty. Indeed, the poor will always be with us. Jesus made clear by his examples, however, that we are to help. The fact that we cannot do everything does not negate the fact that we can do something. What we do and how we respond is the faith issue facing us. Some will respond with money, others with non-monetary gestures, others will feign ignorance. All of us make choices about our responses, however, and one day we may have to answer for those choices.

Come home to church this Sunday.

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The Desperation of Poverty, Part 2

For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. 1 Timothy 4:10

During my recent trip to Honduras, a line from the movie Still Alice lingered in my mind. The movie is about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice is asked to share her experience with a group of researchers while she is still lucid enough to do so. She writes out her thoughts over a period of weeks so she can read them on stage. The line in her speech that struck me was this: “I am not suffering; I am struggling.” I thought it was odd, as it seemed to me she was both struggling and suffering – at least that was my interpretation of her condition.

I just named what I believe to be one of the biggest obstacles to helping those we label as in need of assistance – we impose our interpretation of their condition upon them, and then seek to interject our solution. We do this with the most charitable and best of intentions. For me, I contemplated the difference between struggling and suffering in the context of the people I met in Honduras. Certainly, there are conditions they struggle with – clean drinking water, for example, but they also found ways to cope with most issues. They struggle with high crime rates and an inadequate infrastructure, at least by our standards. I saw much of what I considered substandard housing. What I did not see, however, was a lot of suffering. In fact, and in retrospect, I think the cross-section of folks I met in Honduras suffer less than a similar cross-section of folks in the U.S.

Our interpretation of the condition of another is pivotal to how we react to them, as well as how or if we try to help them. For a suffering person, we offer comfort and support. We may feel pity and offer sympathy for their condition, sometimes even empathy. We may try to assure them things will get better, even when we do not know that to be the case. Often, we respond to suffering with acts of mercy to try to ease the distress.

For a struggling person, however, acts of mercy, pity, and sympathy may not be well received or helpful. A person who is struggling is attempting to better his or her own condition, but circumstances beyond their control often work against them. They need assistance, but not interference. Consider beavers. They build dams in streams to form water pools for their nests. Unfortunately, a beaver dam stops the water from flowing as it normally would, causing problems for those downstream. Sometimes, a beaver dam must be removed in order to restore the water flow. I think this image illustrates the plight of many struggling people. One way we can help is by identifying where the “flow” of resources is blocked and assist in getting materials flowing as needs demand.

Two manifestations of the desperation of poverty are suffering and struggling, and if we are to help those in poverty, we need effective tools for both. Everyone deserves the respect to say how or if they receive assistance. Suffering and struggling are two very different conditions, and if we are to help, we must recognize and honor the difference.

Come home to church this Sunday. Bring your poverty to the cross.

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Been There, Done That

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  John 17:1b-3

Today is Holy Thursday, the day the church remembers the Last Supper and the betrayal by Judas. Jesus and his disciples gather in a room for the Passover meal. Jesus washes their feet and gives them a new commandment – to love one another. Finally, he establishes a new covenant, one indemnified by his body and blood. Christians know the rest of the gruesome story – the sham trials, beatings, flogging, crown of thorns, carrying his cross, and the crucifixion. There are many lessons of importance here, including these two: (1) Jesus came so we could know God through him; and (2) Jesus suffered so we would know that God understands our pain.

A common illustration of the generation gap occurs when a parent tells a suffering child, “I know what you are going through.” Children do not believe it. They believe the world has changed dramatically since their parents were kids, so parents cannot possibly understand contemporary challenges. Our children do not grasp that although time may put new clothes on life’s challenges, the essence of the experience does not change. Similarly, some may assume God cannot understand our pain because Jesus’ trials were 2000 years ago. Suffering is suffering, however, regardless of age, socio-economic status, geographic location, or any other variable. Pain is an equal opportunity experience. Jesus suffered horribly near the end, both physically and emotionally. No matter what we go through, we have assurance that God has experienced it, because God was there in Jesus. And God is with us today. In order to finish his “work” on earth, God-in-Jesus experienced the worst. Jesus went through death’s door and came back to show that death is not the end. Our suffering will end, but our existence continues. Hope springs eternal.

Jesus drew all people to himself – the outcasts, the poor, the sick, the foreigners, and the unpopular. He knew what we only pretend to know, that higher levels of life and truth must contain and embrace all lower levels. We cannot overcome evil by ostracizing it, nor can we overcome suffering by ignoring its existence. We overcome less-than-desirable parts of our lives by loving them, by living a better way, and by accepting all into our circle of awareness and blessing. Jesus invites us to bring our earthly trials and lay them at the foot of his cross, where he will bear them with us. We are not alone. He has been there and done that. At the Last Supper, Jesus told us to remember – remember he has been there; remember this life is not all there is; remember we are loved beyond imagination. There is light on the other side of the cross.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be there and do that.

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Not Enough Rocks

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Psalm 51:10-12

In a touching scene from the movie Forrest Gump, Jenny returns to live with Forrest for a time as she strives to stabilize her wretched life. After years of drug abuse and wandering in search of something to build a life upon, she returns to her hometown and to the one person who had loved her in a healthy way since childhood – Forrest Gump. Jenny and Forrest walk leisurely together and end up in front of the run-down, deserted house where she grew up with her abusive father. Jenny’s countenance immediately changes to one of intense anger. She begins picking up rocks and throwing them at the house, eventually breaking a window. She falls to the ground in an exhausted and emotional heap, weeping. Forrest sits down beside her and says, “Sometimes, I guess, there just aren’t enough rocks.”

Jenny made many poor decisions in her life. The house of her childhood stood as a reminder of the years of anguish from which she had long tried to escape. She threw the rocks in a fruitless attempt to find peace by harming this physical remnant of her nightmare childhood – perhaps in hopes that it would suffer a portion of the pain she experienced within its walls. Although the house was not the cause of her childhood abuse, it was inseparable from the painful memories.

Similar recollections occur with us today. For example, I cannot drive by my old high school without remembering the violent racial tension that existed during my years there. Decades later, the memory makes me uncomfortable. The building, while having nothing to do with the unrest, stands as a reminder and a transport vehicle back to that difficult time in history. It is natural for us to develop aversions to people and places that are associated with pain from our past. We must remember, however, that the physical objects are separate from our suffering. Our on-going pain from hurts of the past is a spiritual issue that requires spiritual healing. The writer of the 51st Psalm cries for God to create a “clean heart” within, complete with a “new and right spirit.” If we truly desire restoration from pain to joy, we need a loving God, not a whipping boy.

Granted, there are times when we feel the need to strike out in retaliation against our pain, even when the objects were only innocent witnesses. That sort of striking back may actually help in some cases, if only temporarily. Some people feel a need to hold onto their suffering, and God gives us free will to do so. To actually heal our pain, however, requires the intervention of a Savior. Because sometimes, there just aren’t enough rocks.

Come home to church this Sunday. Throw the one true Rock at your pain…

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