Our human nature resists the whole concept of suffering. If there is a God worth calling God, why would the innocent and good have to suffer?
If this life is all there is, then there really doesn’t appear to be any reasonable answer to that.
And in my own experience, the more people I let myself care about, never-the-less love, the more I open myself to suffering. How much more would I suffer if I truly loved, or even just cared moderately about all humanity, all animals, perhaps even all creation?
Part of the mystery of suffering is that it seems to be part and parcel of loving. Loving involves being willing to suffer for another and others. Most of us have trouble loving even one person that we choose for a lifetime and sure don’t want to even consider loving people that look or think very differently than we do.
The Jews longed for a Messiah, a Savior, for literally thousands of years. Have you ever wondered why a close friend, a follower who witnessed the miracles, the power, and the kindness of Jesus would betray him to the point of giving him over to suffer and die. What brought Judas to that kind of hatred?
The shattered expectation that the Messiah would save the Jews, God’s chosen people, from suffering. Judas witnessed the reality of the power Jesus had, but more and more he saw Jesus using it to save the enemy. And unlike optimistic Peter, he heard what Jesus was beginning to say about his own coming suffering, even dying, instead of freeing them from the tyranny of Rome , the impoverishment of Roman taxes, the constant threat of their children becoming random victims of a ruler’s whim. Judas wanted a triumphant King, not a suffering servant. Disillusionment turned hope into bitterness and hate.
What kind of love was choosing to die rather than to save God’s chosen people?
We still struggle with that question.
Without the resurrection, surely we would all endorse the survival of the fittest at the expense of the vulnerable. If we believed this life is all there is, would we respond to the call to pick up our cross and follow Jesus? We saw where that led Jesus. It led him through the acceptance of the refining of suffering, the acceptance of humbling helplessness and the crushing feeling of abandonment, even finally through the gate of death itself and only then to resurrection.
The reality is that life is made up of cycles of struggling with suffering until we can accept the deaths of our idols and illusions, the things we cling to out of fear, and only then can we be reborn freer to love each time. Only then do we grow better at loving other imperfect people up close and personal and to care about even the lepers, the hostile, the foreign, the frightening, and the lost.
Life’s natural process includes loss, helplessness, letting go, experiencing the peace of acceptance, then the rebirth of gratitude and humility that leads to love, joy and fruitfulness.
Passion, death, and resurrection should be one process word.
Pretty much all my life I have hungered for God except for a time when personal losses and the suffering in the world overwhelmed me and I sought escape in the diversions the world offers. But they did not satisfy that longing and I began to seek Him in most of the main religions, both Christian and others. But did not find Him. Finally He found me through friends who not only witnessed verbally to the love of God expressed in Jesus, but literally gave up all they had to follow him. I returned with great joy to a Christianity that included people from many denominations who had found a life changing relationship with God through Jesus. As I grew in my relationship with Him, it changed and I found Her in even more and sometimes unexpected places and people who were on the same journey, but a different path. God was bigger than any of our “breadboxes.” I struggled with the differences I found even within denominations between those who had a vibrant obviously growing personal relationship with God and those that seemed to just cling to a spiritual tradition, a spiritual club, a spiritual insurance policy, or a set of rules or formulas that made them feel spiritually superior. (To be continued in: Which of These Is Not Like the Others? Which of These Doesn’t Belong? Child of God, Loved Unconditionally, Born again, Personal Relationship with God, Personal Relationship with Jesus, On a Spiritual Journey, Spiritual Seeker, In a Dance of Grace and Response, Process of Sanctification, Saved, Law Abiding, Righteous, Finished?)
The heart of true religion is spirituality. Then and only then can it become communal. If our faith communities are not made up of people with a humble personal relationship with God based on our own ongoing needing and receiving forgiveness, our faith communities will become legalistic, judgmental, unforgiving, about pride and power, and ultimately conflict ridden.
The heart of the spiritual life is a personal journey from recognizing our human weakness and failures, then experiencing forgiveness and unconditional love, to an ongoing response to this grace of becoming more and more able to love others in the same way. It’s an ongoing cycle of repentance and grace and growth in the freedom to love.
The heart of unconditional love is forgiveness. No one is perfect. We all need forgiveness and new beginnings throughout our lives. Truly accepting forgiveness and forgiving others are interdependent. And forgiveness and love are inseparable. We can’t accept or give one without the other.
Each day we are called to open our hearts and minds to God, to find God’s grace in: a first cup of coffee, morning birdsong and sunlight, star filled darkness, storms, fear, difficult people, beauty, a tearful child, a faithful pet, sharing our daily bread, our own and others’ brokenness, sorrow, joy, forgiving, laughter, loss, love, every moment, every human experience, every human relationship, and every human being. When we have “God” eyes, we see God and God’s love everywhere. When we are filled to overflowing, God’s love can pour out for everyone, even those who need our forgiveness.
I don’t think any of us are intentionally evil, but we are all blind. When Jesus prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” he meant all of us. When Paul said, “We see through the glass darkly,” he meant all of us, including himself.
Without grace there is no way we can get beyond our limited perceptions. We are molded and even warped by our historical era, culture, climate, nationality, race, class, religion, education, genes, ancestors, parents, peers, personalities, bodies, health, and life experiences. We are all crippled and incomplete spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically.
Only by dying to these limits, to our earthbound selves, can we become free to see, and then to love, as Jesus did. Since many of these influences are rooted in our unconscious, it takes times facing our demons in the desert to even begin to know ourselves and times spent in prayer on the mountain with God to be set free mentally and reborn spiritually and healed physically. There is a huge difference between praying, “God, if it is your will, heal me.” And saying, “God, heal me according to your will.” God wants us healed. Though mental, spiritual, and physical healing are connected, I have been with both the young and the old when they were at peace dying physically, because they had been healed spiritually and I have seen people healed spiritually by being healed physically. With God all things are possible. He is the same, but we are all different. There are no limiting rules, just the goal of bringing each of us home to live immersed in His Love forever.
The scriptures show Jesus approaching healing differently for different people. “Do you want to be healed?” “Your sins are forgiven.” “Stand up and walk.” “Go show yourself to the religious authorities.” “Your faith has healed you.” “Some things take prayer and fasting.” The question isn’t whether God wants us healed. The question is where does the process need to begin.
Passion, death, and resurrection should be one word. Jesus struggling with his fears in the garden, feeling totally abandoned by his family and friends, his anguish so great that he sweat drops of blood, and finally being able to say, “Your will, not mine,” is what set Him free to rise again.
We are born again by recognizing and admitting we need to be set free, by putting ourselves in God’s hands, and then continuing to allow His Spirit to burn the chaff within us in life-long on going passiondeathandresurrections.
These things seem to me to be true: (I’ll get back to you later, when God tells me different.) 1.We all fall short: rich and poor, male and female, educated and uneducated, presidents and drug addicts, young and old, religious and non-religious, Republicans and Democrats. 2.Becoming is more important than achieving. 3. We can’t change anyone else. And the best way to help others isn’t by pretending to be a super person, but by sharing our struggle and our need for grace to become our best selves. (And that even our best selves may not be something to brag about!) 4. It takes a ton of grace and varying amounts of blood, sweat, and tears for each of us to grow closer to being the person we were created to be. (Some of us tend to make it harder for ourselves.)
I have two previous posts titled Hubris One and Hubris Two. This one, Hubris Three, will make more sense, if the others are read first.
In Hubris One and Two I describe my spiritual journey during my twenties: of rejecting my childhood faith, a period of settling for pleasure in hedonism, an unsuccessful search for God in Religious Institutions, a search for purpose and meaning through working for civil rights, and then seeking a way to change hearts and minds, not just laws, by getting a degree in psychology, then recognizing that psychology also had serious limits, since most people don’t admit they need to change.
About this time, one of the couples in our social group began to talk and act strangely. Judy and Earl began to drink less, dance with each other, and finally to our horror, would mention Jesus Christ, as if he were someone they knew, not just an exclamation. Since they were our friends, most of us overlooked these aberrations and tried to not be too obvious, when we edged away from their inappropriate cocktail party conversations.
Soon however, they got our full attention, when they announced that Earl was giving up his job in his family’s company. And they were selling their home and expensive toys to work full time for a nondenominational, nonprofit organization called Campus Crusade for Christ.
We had to admit that was “putting your money where your mouth is!”
Most of us decided that it was temporary insanity. They’d get over it and we hoped they had set up trust funds for their children.
And I shrugged aside my feelings of envy of their believing in something enough to stake their whole life on it.
Judy’s sister was my best friend. She was much less assertive than Earl and Judy, but she finally shared with me that she had a new faith, a personal relationship with Christ, not just a church or religion. She couldn’t articulate it very well, but at this same time, her husband abandoned her and their two young daughters. Her strength through this devastating experience made it obvious, that whatever it was that she had discovered, it made a difference even in heartbreak.
In the middle of Hilde’s beginning over, Judy and a team of women from Campus Crusade came to town. Judy asked Hilde to host a Christian Coffee for her friends. I rallied our friends to help Hilde. I invited people saying, “I don’t know what a Christian Coffee is. I didn’t know our usual ones weren’t! But the talks will be short and the food will be fantastic. Come for Hilde’s sake.”
At the coffee, several women gave talks describing how they now had a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ, since they had accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. I didn’t really understand what these words meant and I wasn’t very comfortable with the simplistic religious language. My ears perked up, however, when they mentioned freeing insights into their own behavior patterns, improved relationships with their families, and a greater concern for others outside their limited social and racial group.
Obviously, whatever this experience was, it made concrete differences in the quality of their lives. And it was free, no college tuition or counseling fees.
When they led us in saying a prayer asking Jesus to be our Savior and Lord and to make us into the people He wanted us to be, I balked, blocked by my usual need to understand things intellectually first.
As others were weeping and hugging one another, I started gathering up dishes. But one of the women cornered me, asking if I had said the prayer. I said, “No, I can’t. I don’t believe in God and I think Jesus was a wonderful person, but an unrealistic visionary that got himself crucified.”
This woman was not deterred. She responded immediately, “Well, why don’t you just say the prayer this way, Jesus, if there is a God, and you are who you claim to be, please be my Savior and Lord.”
That threw me for a loop. It seemed like a win-win proposition. If none of it was true, I had nothing to lose. And if it was true, I certainly didn’t want to miss out on it. So, I prayed the prayer with her and accepted her hugs and congratulations, and went back to my Martha activities.
As I washed Hilde’s lovely china by hand, I listened to everyone celebrating around me and wondered if the prayer would ever make any difference to me.
Suddenly, feelings of sheer joy overwhelmed me. Somehow, I knew in that moment with my whole mind, heart, and spirit, that God was real and that He loved me unconditionally, even when I was denying Him. Teachings from my Catholic childhood, readings in the Bible, ideas from the Protestant classes, and insights from my study of Psychology all came together like pieces of a puzzle finally forming a whole picture.
But the most important part was the total confidence I now had, that I was completely known and deeply loved, faults and all, no brownie points necessary to earn it. As I drove home, bursting with joy, I tried to think of an appropriate song or hymn to sing. Although lovely, the Latin hymns of my childhood didn’t really fit the moment. Finally the child’s song, Jesus Loves Me, began to bubble up and out of me. Tears and joy overflowed as I sang at the top of my voice. And I realized that these simple words expressed perfectly what I knew now, that I did not know before.
In the next two years our group of women from most of the major denominations and one member from the Jewish faith came together each week to read the Scriptures and share our experiences of God in our daily lives. Many had always been active in their churches, but had never experienced this kind of relationship with Christ and God. For some the new understanding and deeper realization of the love of God came quietly, but steadily. For others, like me, it came almost like an explosion. But, in all of us, the Spirit began to bring new self-honesty, openness, and greater concern for others. The more we grew in our awareness of God in our lives, the freer we became to forgive ourselves and others and to love in new ways.
Although some things changed quickly, others did not. And we began to see more clearly that growth really is a life-long process, that needs nourishment from many sources: prayer, Scripture, the wisdom of others who have walked before us, and even humanity’s growing knowledge of Psychology and Biology. And perhaps most important, the acceptance and support of each other in our journey together.
Part of my new awareness was how ridiculous it was that I had thought that because my limited human mind could not make sense of God, then of course, God couldn’t exist. What HUBRIS!!
Humbled, but filled with the love of God, I began to see God everywhere, to experience miracles large and small. It’s like putting on God glasses. Reading the Scriptures was like reading letters from God. Meaning simply poured off the pages.
And I wanted to share this new life with those I loved and with anyone God brought into my life.
Our group helped give another Christian Coffee and grew too large , so we divided into smaller sharing groups. We witnessed miracles where God seemed to intervene concretely in our lives. But then, we also learned to trust His love, when we humbly shared the pain and faith of one of our members dying with cancer.
Since our focus was on hearing God in the circumstances of our daily lives, we were able to hear through our different religious languages to our basic unity in the Spirit of God.
Each of us became more active in our own denominations and became involved in renewal movements within them.
Personally, in the forty-five years since that first “Christian Coffee,” I have found that simply belonging to a main stream denomination does not provide enough spiritual nurture without having a support group of those, who have also experienced a changed life through a personal relationship with Christ as Savior and Lord.
I have also found that ecumenical sharing groups have the best chance of avoiding making idols of denominations and empty religious observances. They seem to stay focused on growing in their personal relationships with Jesus as Lord better.
And I have learned that for diverse people saying the prayer accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord can play out very differently. We come into the circle of God’s love in different places with our unique histories and patterns and personalities. Don’t ever try to put God into a box, however wonderful it seems to you. God is bigger than any of our experiences, rituals, beliefs.
God meets us where we are and respects who we are, because He made us and knows us better than we do, never-the-less anyone else can.
a baptismal spectacular
opens our eyes.
“Come and See”
Tears of waterfalls
stirring lonely pools,
the reconciling Spirit
invites us gently.
Hidden river flowing
with silent, ageless strength
transforms and renews
our hearts of stone.
“Drink of me.”