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The Refining Power of Suffering

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. – James 1:2-4

There is a simple lesson that I have had to learn over and over again. The lesson is this: Suffering really hurts. This statement is so obvious that it seems silly to write it, yet it has been a hard truth for me to internalize. In my experience, it is very easy to have romantic ideas about suffering that bear little resemblance to the actual fact.

This is an important thing for me to get straight, since the suffering of Jesus lies at the heart of my faith. Out of love for us, Jesus endured the fullness of suffering and death, revealing a doorway into redemption and unlimited life. His resurrection is so radiant that it can be tempting ignore the reality of the dreadful agony that preceded it.

Yet Jesus’ life was deeply marked by anguish. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus retreated to the desert for 40 days, eating and drinking nothing during that whole time. He experienced the pain of starvation and prolonged solitude during his lengthy sojourn in the wilderness. At the end of that period of self-denial, Jesus had a breakthrough – a triumphant encounter with the dark powers that sought to undermine his mission. The Adversary believed that 40 days of starvation and isolation would make Jesus more vulnerable to attack, but in fact the experience of those days had only deepened his relationship with the Father. Suffering had focused Jesus on that which was truly important.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus endured suffering. Crowds drove Jesus to the brink of exhaustion, pursuing him from town to town, seeking miracles and healing. Ironically, at the same time he faced a real sense of isolation from his closest friends, who rarely seemed to understand who Jesus really was and what he was sent to do. Some of Jesus’ greatest trials came the night of his arrest, when he felt abandoned by his disciples who did not have the stamina to stay awake with him while he prayed for strength and guidance.

It is easy to get so wrapped up in the glory of Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over the powers of darkness and death that we fail to take seriously enough the reality of Jesus’ agony. His hunger was real. His sense of isolation and betrayal was truly disheartening. The whips that scourged him and the nails that pierced his limbs nearly tore him apart. When Jesus hung dying on the cross, there was nothing triumphant about it.

I find it easier to face my own measure of darkness when I remember what Jesus has endured. He reminds me that suffering is not an aberration to be avoided, but rather an essential part of my journey as his disciple. Just as Jesus’ crucifixion served as a doorway to the resurrection, the little trials that I face can provide a path to greater maturity and rootedness in the Rock of Life. Through daily baptisms of adversity, Jesus invites me into the humble joy of his unlimited life.

A great mystery that Jesus reveals to us is that this radiant life emerges not from outward victory, but from patient endurance in suffering. The height of glory is found in our lowest moments. It is only when a seed dies that it can sprout into new life and bear fruit. It is by embracing suffering that we come to know true peace.

How have you experienced the refining power of suffering in your own life? Where have you seen God at work in the difficulties that face your family, community, city or nation? How have you experienced the reality of the cross, and of the resurrection?

Resurrection Without the Cross is Dead

Yesterday morning, when I opened my inbox, one email jumped out at me. It was from YouVersion, an online Bible service that I am using to read the One Year Bible on my smartphone. The subject line declared in large, bold letters: “He Is Risen!”

This struck me as a bit premature. It was Maundy Thursday, the day when the Christian community remembers the Last Supper, Jesus’ anguished hours praying in the garden of Gesthemane, and his midnight betrayal by Judas and arrest by the religious authorities. On Maundy Thursday, we remember that the Way of Jesus exposes us to persecution and betrayal.

Of course, that is not the part of the story that motivates me. I am not seeking to be abused and betrayed, let down by my best friends and hunted by those in power. I may recognize the necessity of suffering, but by no means do I seek it out. I think most of us gravitate towards the triumphant victory and joy of Jesus’ resurrection. Victory is energizing, and we want to be victorious people.
Without the resurrection, of course, the suffering and death of Jesus would lose its meaning. If Jesus was only crucified, but not raised, then we have no hope. The resurrection gives meaning to everything that comes before and goes after it. The resurrection is a resounding statement of God’s love for and solidarity with the human family. It represents God’s ultimate “Yes” to humanity, bearing our burdens and overcoming them through love.

And yet, without Jesus’ ministry and prophetic witness, without his suffering and death, the resurrection is stripped of its power. The joy of Easter without the tears of betrayal and the agony of the cross is a perversion of the Good News. The heart of the gospel is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has fully identified with humanity, taking on our suffering, our burdens, our sin. By becoming a human being, by teaching and healing us, and by taking all our hate and violence upon himself, Jesus shows us how much God loves us – enough to suffer and die for those who hate him.

There is a temptation to ignore the incredible love that Jesus demonstrated on the cross. The cross is painful, it is messy, it convicts us of the ways that we continue to crucify Jesus through our participation in a corrupt economic and social order. The cross reminds us that we ourselves are responsible.
If we celebrate the resurrection without remembering the cross, we deny the incarnation. The greatest mystery and joy of the Christian faith is not the mere fact that Jesus rose from the dead. It is that he became one of us, experienced our suffering and died for us – at our hands, no less – so that we might be transformed and healed.

Today is Good Friday, the day when the Christian community remembers Jesus’ torture and execution at the hands of the imperial and religious authorities. As we remember the price that Jesus paid to liberate us from bondage, let us also remember that we continue to live in a world where the innocent are crushed by the religious and imperial authorities. Let us examine our own hearts to see where our responsibility lies. Are we like the crowd that screamed, “crucify, crucify!“? Or perhaps we are like the disciples, who scattered and hid when persecution came.

This Good Friday, can we resist the temptation to fast-foward to Easter? Will we choose to see the suffering of the world, and the way that God suffers with us? Can we witness God’s love for us in the cross? Let us make the time to remember the agony of the cross, and to reflect on the consequences of love in a broken world. When we embrace the work of the cross, walking with Jesus in his work of reconciliation, we will be able to say with all our hearts, “He is risen indeed!”

Why Suffering?

I have been gaining great inspiration and insight recently from reading a biography of Mary Teresa of Calcutta. In her letters, Mary Teresa writes with profound intensity and a singularity of gospel commitment. At the same time, she demonstrates incredible humility and self-denial. Teresa is an inspiration to me for the way in which she was so passionate Mary Teresa of Calcutta holding a childand yet so amazingly yielded to Jesus and the work that he gave her, both interiorly and in the world.

I would like to emulate Mary Teresa’s witness. Though I must admit that I have no desire to bear the inward cross of spiritual desolation that she did, I see that this intense darkness (and her continued faithfulness in it) was the highest mark of sanctification and union with God. She truly got a taste of Christ’s spiritual desolation as he suffered and died on the cross! It was not that God was not present with her. Rather, God was powerfully present in her life, but she could not feel God’s love and peace in her soul. She was left desolate, even while living a life of saintliness and union with God. How amazing. How true to the experience of Jesus!

I see that this is what I fear and flee: the dreadful reality of death on the cross. It brings about the resurrection, laying the groundwork for rebirth in Christ. The suffering of the cross is central to God’s plan of cosmic redemption. Yet, it is so dreadful to my soul. Terrifying! It represents the death of the willful self, the “old man.” But I can see the blessedness of this self-dying in the witness of Mary Teresa. While I cannot bring myself to long for the agony of the cross, I do pray to die to self so that I can live For God So Loved the World...fully in Christ – so that Jesus can come to live fully in me, just as he seems to have done in Mary Teresa.

In the suffering and spiritual anguish of the saints, I see the truth that is incomprehensible to the modern-day western consciousness: I see that God’s plan is not centered around human desires, individual fulfillment or happiness. Mary Teresa saw that her suffering could be cosmically redemptive, perhaps different only in degree from Christ’s suffering and death. Indeed, as Christ’s body, we participate in his atoning (reconciling) sacrifice.(1)

This is radical stuff. I was raised to focus on my own personal fulfillment and advancement. Individual happiness was always the name of the game. But what if happiness is not the point at all? What if suffering is not, in fact, tragic? What if suffering is actually an integral part of the divine plan? This impacts the question of Way Forwardtheodicy. Because, of course, while theodicy technically means “why evil?” in practice it tends to mean, “why suffering?”

While it is certainly right to say that evil results in suffering, it does not necessarily follow that suffering is evil. What if suffering is like an antibody that God has created to combat evil? What if suffering is a God-given part of the cosmic “immune system”? What if suffering is the only path to healing? What would the implications be for those of us (the vast majority, I imagine) who avoid suffering whenever possible?

1. See 1 Colossians 1:24

The False Atonement of Osama Bin Laden

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28

[In Bin Laden’s death there are] …no red states or blue states, just United States; no MoveOn progressives or Tea Party conservatives, just Americans. – Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post

After months of preparations, a small detachment of US commandos entered Osama Bin Laden’s high-security compound in Pakistan and put a bullet in his head. Bin Laden’s body was quickly evacuated from the scene, to be buried at sea. President Barak Obama soon appeared on television to announce to the nation and the world that the mastermind of the September 11thYouth Celebrate Bin Laden's Death attacks and spiritual leader of Al Qaeda had been killed. “Justice has been done.”

I first got word of Bin Laden’s assassination just before going to sleep on Sunday evening. I also learned that crowds had gathered in front of the White House (and, I would later learn, in New York City). Hundreds of people – mostly the very young – took to the streets to celebrate the death of the perpetrator of the most devastating foreign attack on the United States in living memory. For many of those celebrating Bin Laden’s death on Sunday night, the 9/11 terror attacks took place before they were in high school.

While the youngest generations were the most visible celebrants late Sunday evening, jubilation seems to have swept through all generations. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post crowed the following morning, “Triumphalism and unapologetic patriotism are in order. We got him.”(1) In perhaps the most extreme example of said triumphalism, the New York Daily News trumpetedCelebration Outside the White House the news, saying, “the message of the Bin Laden killing is this: We are still here. And he rots in hell.”

It is clear that the youth gathered outside the White House and on the streets of New York on the evening of Bin Laden’s death were not merely isolated demonstrations of adolescent bluster. Much of the nation, led by our news media, has found a delirious national unity in the death of our chief enemy.

From everything I understand about the man, Osama Bin Laden was devoted to murder and fomented hatred and death throughout the world. He worshipped a false God of violence and coercion, taking pleasure in the deaths of his enemies. And for almost a decade he served as the arch-enemy of the United States and the Western world in general. Now, through his assassination by the United States government, the process of scapegoating is Rot in Hellcomplete. The United States has spent ten years piling the sins of the nation on top of this man, and his death promises an opportunity for redemption. A ragged, divided nation looks to Osama Bin Laden for atonement.

Thanks to the death of Bin Laden explains Robinson, there are now, “…no red states or blue states, just United States; no MoveOn progressives or Tea Party conservatives, just Americans.”(1) A new national myth is being forged: Through his death, Bin Laden has united us. We are all one in his death. This is the blood atonement of Osama Bin Laden.

Clearly, this is a monstrous falsehood.

Where is the Church of Jesus Christ in all of this? Where is the Body of Christ in the United States? How did Osama Bin Laden become our savior, cleansing us with his blood? How did we come to substitute our own violence for the saving power of God? How is it that we now find ourselves standing in the place of Pilate, nailing Bin Laden to a cross of our own devising and engineering a manmade atonement?

Bin Laden was no Jesus, but we are acting like Romans.

Far from being a day of national celebration, this should be day for repentance. Like the people of Nineveh long ago(2), far from gloating and cheering the death of our enemy, we should put on sackcloth and ashes. We should mourn the horror and destruction that comes from human greed, fear and lust for domination. This is a time for us, the Church, to repent of our involvement in Empire and to call our fellow citizens out of it as well. We must not swallow the lies of nationalism and militarism that have replaced the cross with an American flag. Lord Jesus, have mercy on us – we know not what we do.

Universalism: Gateway Drug?

I have really appreciated the lively discussion that has taken place in the comments on my last post, Is Universalism Heresy? I am wrestling with these questions along with you, and I don’t pretend to have a clear-cut answer to offer. Questions about salvation lead to questions regarding the atonement, which in turn lead to questions about the nature of God. Deep, hard questions that have remained open talking points within the orthodox Christian Church for two thousand years.

To be sure, the Church has agreed on some basic facts, including that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God and that his atoning life, death and resurrection bring about a reconciliation between humanity and God. We affirm the lordship andChrist Carrying the Cross - El Greco majesty of Jesus, and we give thanks for the great things God has done through the faithfulness and self-sacrifice of Jesus. There are basic truths that we as Christ’s Church have been able to agree on since the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Yet, while we affirm these truths, the “hows” and “whys” of these truths have continued to elude firm conclusions over the course of centuries. How – exactly – does Christ’s atonement work? What – precisely – happens after we die? How does humanity’s free will interact with God’s sovereignty? Men and women of greater faith and intellect than me have not been able to come to final conclusions on these questions, and I do not pretend to offer authoritative answers where the great Doctors of the Church have been unable to reach a final verdict.

However, the fact that there are a variety of orthodox understandings of the faith does not mean that we do not have preferences. Even within the bounds of orthodoxy, we can observe that certain ideas – while not necessarily heretical – can have positive or negative effects on those who believe them. For example, the substitutionary atonement model for understanding Christ’s sacrifice on the cross falls well within the orthodoxy of the Church. There is clear scriptural support for this perspective, and Christ Crucified - Diego Velázquezgenerations of Christians have understood God’s grace through this lens. Despite the validity of this way of viewing the atonement, however, it also presents us with challenges.

One major problem is that some versions of the substitutionary atonement model understand Jesus as enduring God’s wrath, taking the punishment that God the Father would have otherwise poured out on us. This is a very disturbing image, reminiscent of the domestic abuse that takes place in many families. If we are to take this model of the atonement seriously, we must wrestle with its shadow side, which, left unexamined, could validate an image of God as abusive Father and Husband.

On the other hand, there are many other orthodox perspectives of the atonement. One that is a favorite among liberal, orthodox Christians is the moral influence model. This model, which finds ample support in the early Church, understands Jesus’ atoning work as being primarily about the example of love and self-sacrifice that he set for us. Just like the substitutionary model, there are attractive aspects to this theory. However, the moral influence theory also has its shadow side: If this is the only lens we bring to our understanding of the meaning of Christ’s work, we are at risk
Sermon on the Mount - Carl Bloch of downplaying or ignoring the spiritual reality of his suffering and death on the cross. It is not enough to simply follow the teachings of Jesus – we must also be baptized into his suffering and death.

With all of the various orthodox models for understanding the atonement (and there are many), I would argue that we cannot choose just one. In fact, I would urge you to consider that it is the atonement itself that is the foundation of our faith as Christians, not theories about how it works. These theories are valuable as we seek greater understanding of the faith that we have received through Christ’s life, death and resurrection; but theories cannot replace the wordless reality that is the living power and presence of the Holy Spirit. When we begin to battle over which theory of the atonement is the right one, we have already missed the point.

You might be wondering at this point why I am giving such a detailed treatment of atonement theory in a post that is ostensibly about Christian Universalism. My reason is this: I believe that Universalism is a model for understanding the purpose and effects of the atonement, and I suspect that Universalism falls within orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, it clearly has a rather sizable dark side that can be a threat to the integrity of our faith. Even if Universalism is not heretical per The Last Supper - Dalise, is it possible that it represents the edge of one slippery slope into beliefs that undermine the foundations of our faith?

Some folks I respect seem to think so. My good Friend, Scott Wells, who is himself a Universalist Christian minister, pointed out in a recent blog post that Universalism seems to often be a stepping stone into more troubling doctrines. He even referred to Christian Universalism as a “gateway doctrine,” leading to, “more eccentric and esoteric forms of belief.” Many of us are aware of church leaders who began to profess Christian Universalism, but soon drifted away from orthodox Christianity entirely. Is this an inevitable effect of accepting Christian Universalism? I do not believe so, since my friend Scott is still an orthodox Christian, despite having been a Universalist minister for many years.

As I continue to wrestle with these questions, I invite you to reflect along with me: Does Christian Universalism present an opening to truly heretical doctrines? If so, how can we guard against the tendency towards heresy while still affirming and embracing the universalist perspectives that have always been active within the orthodox Church?

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Living in Covenant

In the Bible, the primary way in which God has relationship with humanity is through covenant. A covenant is an agreement between two parties, traditionally formalized by the shedding of blood through animal sacrifice.(1) It was by covenant that God had a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, and it was through covenant that God gathered the Hebrew people and made them into a holy nation. Covenant remains to this day at the heart of God’s relationship with humanity.

The Mosaic Covenant

Nowhere is the importance of covenant made clearer than in the book of Exodus, which details the Hebrew’s liberation from bondageMt. Concepción - Nicaragua in Egypt. We read that, after escaping Pharaoh, the Hebrews arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses ascended the holy mountain to speak with God. When Moses returned to the people who were awaiting him at the foot of the mountain, he recited the Lord’s commandments to the Hebrews: These were the things that God required of the people as their side of the covenant. He also revealed God’s promise to Israel: If they were faithful to the Lord’s commandments, God would lead them into the promised land and provide for their needs.(2)

The people agreed to be bound by the terms of the covenant, saying, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.”(3) The following morning, Moses arose early and set up an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses sacrificed oxen and gathered their blood into basins. He dashed half of the blood against the altar, representing God’s promise. He scattered the rest of the blood onto the crowded assembly. This blood, sprinkled on the altar and the assembly, symbolized the unity and commitment of God and Israel in this new relationship.

The rituals involved in this ancient covenant may make us squeamish; most of us today aren’t used to animal sacrifice or largeCow amounts of blood. However, although the outward rituals may no longer be relevant for us, the essential meaning of covenant is deeply important to our life as a community gathered in Christ.

Vulnerability and Commitment

How do we make sense of the idea of covenant today? I would like to suggest that the essence of covenant is mutual vulnerability andQuaker Youth Pilgrimage hears presentation reciprocal commitment. We make ourselves vulnerable to one another when we sacrifice that which is dear to us. By giving up our prized possessions, we admit that we need the Other more than we need our own strength. Moses sacrificed a bull; we today may sacrifice deeply held opinions and comforting habits – in either case, we give up that which makes us feel safe in our own strength in order to draw closer to the One in whom we have true security.

God desires intimacy and singleness of purpose with humanity, and this is indeed the result of true covenant: it brings about a union, a reconciliation of formerly estranged parties. Where we were once in rebellion against God, Christ brings us back into loving relationship. In covenant with God, we are reconciled not just individually, but also as a community. We were once warring factions, but now, in Christ, we are reconciled as partners in the Kingdom life.

This relationship of mutual vulnerability and love cannot, however, be sustained without mutual commitment. This is the other side of Crowd in Washingtoncovenant: We are not only drawn together in ecstatic union; we must also promise to live in ways that will sustain our relationship with God. Perhaps the most foundational commitment that God stipulated for the Hebrews was that they worship nothing except God.(3) Without Israel’s commitment to this basic guideline, there was no hope for the covenant to endure; idolatry would make intimate relationship with God impossible.

Just as God called Israel to specific commitments as conditions of the covenant, we today must pledge ourselves to a new way of living in Christ Jesus. If we are faithful in our commitments to God and one another, the covenant will lead us ever deeper into a life of joy and peace. But to be true to our calling, we must embrace a life of responsibility to one another in Christ.

Living the Covenant Today

Just how does this play out in our Christian communities today? Far from being an outdated concept, covenant is at the heart of anyFriends in Brussels, Belgium human community that seeks to serve God and experience more abundant life. When we encounter Jesus in our midst, we are drawn into his new covenant: a life of union with God and transformation as children of light. We must be ready to make ourselves vulnerable, just like the ancients sought to through ritual sacrifice. Instead of sacrificing animals, we must sacrifice our selfish ambition, our self-loathing, our hopes and our fears – anything that gets in the way of the deep, risky relationship that God wants to have with us.

And our vulnerability to God must move beyond the theoretical and touch the daily realities of our lives. Covenant with God and the people of God must have practical effects, reflected in shared commitment on the part of individuals and communities as a whole. Israel’s covenant at Sinai made them very different from the peoples around them. They experienced the presence and power of God among them, and they waited on the Lord to be shown which direction to travel. Israel became a people set apart; their dress, dietary regulations and unusual dedication to one God distinguished them sharply from their neighbors.

How have we experienced God together in our community? Do we feel the presence of Christ in our times of worship, fellowship andSitting on the porch at William Penn House service? How does this experience invite us to live differently? What are the ways that we are being called to commit ourselves to a new way of living – one which will at once draw us closer to one another and to God, as well as challenging our ability to blend into the wider culture and lead ordinary lives? What specific steps are we being asked to take – both as individuals and as communities – to signal our acceptance of this new covenant, our living relationship with Jesus Christ?

2. Exodus 23
3. Exodus 24
4. See Exodus 20