Discovering Peace

Psalm 56: 1-13
1Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me;  2my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High, 3when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.  4In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me? 5All day long they seek to injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil.  6They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps. As they hoped to have my life, 7so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!  8You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?  9Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. 10In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, 11in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?  12My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.  13For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.

This is a high anxiety world and suffering is all around us. I don’t have to tell you that. Globally, nationally, locally, and even in our own homes, the suffering is real and palpable and it causes us to be afraid. And while sometimes words can bring comfort, often times there are no words that bring comfort.

Psalm 56 puts words to the fear we face. It puts words to those in a world who are out to get us. “They trample on me, all day long they are out to get me, my foes oppress me, many fight against me.” I’ve wanted to claim Psalm 56 as the “preacher’s psalm”, but I think I will have to stand in line behind a lot of you who want to claim it as “realtor’s psalm”, “bankers’ psalm”, “teachers’ psalm”, “or (insert your life here) psalm”.

King Charles I, the King of England during the English Civil War, was imprisoned in and ultimately beheaded. During his captivity in 1649 he quoted the first two lines of this psalm, “Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me; 2my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High,” He used verses 1-2 as a response to the taunts of the jailers who were using Psalm 56:1 as THEIR cry, “All day long your foes oppress me.”
We can all relate to Psalm 56. This Psalm speaks to the passion we feel when we just have had enough. “God, c’mon now. You see what’s going on and I’m not a bad person. I’m kind of expecting you to step in here and make things right.” We are not without hope because we are a suffering. The Psalmist chooses to trust in God and we must as well if we want to find peace in an out of control life.

So how can we gain peace in an out of control life? I want to share two things I believe can help.

Reclaim the language of lament

To find or reclaim peace, we must bring all of our lives to God.  It seems that everything we do in our culture is about avoiding negativity because we believe that somehow that doubt will cause us to be failures. We do this in the church really well because we believe that to acknowledge negativity and suffering is somehow a lack of faith – as though by speaking our fears, hurts, and doubts somehow means God has lost control.  This is why in our culture so many of us feel obligated to say things to suffering people like, “It’s gonna be okay, this is gonna make your stronger.”  One of my former professors at Columbia, Walter Brueggeman, says if you read the Psalms and you will find many instances of faith language that speak in the darkness to the darkness. Some may call it a lack of faith, it is really a bold act of faith to cry out to God. Why we can cry out to God we are reaffirming that the world is to be experienced as it is and not in some pretend way. Just because we don’t want pain and suffering doesn’t mean it will go away!! It is a bolder act of faith to cry out to God with nothing out of bounds. Everything can properly be brought to God. To withhold parts of our life and experience is to withhold parts of ourselves from God’s sovereignty. “Everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”

I remember sitting with a family in their home after they received news of the husbands terminal cancer. With me in the room they tried to negotiate positive language. I was simply listening, and he finally said, “What I want to say to God right now is not very nice.” I told him to say it. He needed to say it.

We must choose hope in God

Hope. We use the word quite a bit, but I’m not sure we know what it really means. Hope in Psalm 56 is a trust in God and it is something we CHOOSE. The Psalmist writes in verse 11-12, “In God I trust…my vows to you I must perform.”
Hope is not only the desire for something but also the expectation of receiving it. Hope is not so much a passion or emotion, as a desire of the will. A decision based not only on our experience of God in the past but our expectation of how God promise He will work. Hope is to cherish a desire with anticipation. Hope is to expect something with confidence. Hope is . . . to Trust.

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that Hope and Faith depend on each other “not only as a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering.” Hope doesn’t just bring comfort, it stands over against suffering and persecution – it protests it!  Our Christian hope looks toward the days when Christ will make all things new. When we hope, it creates in a believer a “passion for the possible.”  Hope stands against the powers of darkness and suffering and says, “God WILL – God will”

Micah 7:7, the prophet writes, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord and confident in Him I will keep watch; I will wait with hope and expectancy for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.”

Recovering the language of lament. Choosing hope in God. These are keys to finding peace in an out of control life.

I Believe in the Holy Spirit

John 15:26 – 16:15
26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
16”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.
7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest reflects back to a time when he is a child and he and Jenny are standing on a dirt road in front of his house. Bullies approach and begin to throw rocks at Forrest. Jenny helps him up, touches him on the arm and cries out the famous line, “Run, Forrest, Run!” With her encouragement, standing beside Forrest, he is energized and begins to run.  As he runs, he shatters his leg braces (what he calls his, “magic shoes”). In that moment of pressure and persecution, Jenny gives him the encouragement he needs to run free. Forrest says, from that moment on, if I was going somewhere “I was running!”

We all need someone to come alongside of us. Whether it is in our moments of joy or our moments of grief, we all need someone who will help us up, touch us on the arm, speak the truth to us and give us the encouragement we need to run free.
Each week in the Apostle’s Creed, we proclaim, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” When we say we believe in the Holy Spirit, we declare our faith in a God who has come alongside all of us in every moment of our lives.  In order for Jesus to be in every one of our hearts and lives, he would have to send the Holy Spirit – the person of the Trinity who dwells in every one of us and comes alongside every one of us.
The Holy Spirit is God with us. And Jesus says in our scripture today that the role of the Advocate is to speak the truth to us and encourage us in our lives.

Jesus tells us in verse 13 that when the Spirit comes, He will guide us in all truth, speaking to us the things He hears the Father saying. I hear people often say the Holy Spirit is our conscience and I do not believe this is correct. Our conscience is our conscience.  I have known people whose conscience have led them to do good things and others who are led to do not so good things.  The Holy Spirit is wholly other than your conscience. The “Spirit of truth” speaks truthfully and bears testimony on Christ’s behalf. The Holy Spirit speaks to our conscience, if we are willing to hear him. But the Spirit will say precisely what the Father and Son have said – nothing different. The Holy Spirit will strengthen the community of believers and enable them to speak the truth about what they have experienced of Jesus the Son. I can’t tell you how many times I have come across Christians who have said, “the Holy Spirit told me ______________ (fill in the blank)” and I think to myself, “That ain’t the Holy Spirit.” If you ever wonder whether it is your conscience or the Holy Spirit, just put it up against the truth that the Father and the Son have already revealed. And, does it glorify the Son.  That’s your test.

In John’s Gospel the essence of love is to be connected to and share deeply in the presence and work of Jesus. In Jesus’ farewell discourse we see him dealing with the disciples’ love and sorrow at his impending departure. Jesus, anticipating the grief they will feel, prepares the disciples for his return to the Father. Although it is time for him to leave them physically, he will continue to be with them spiritually through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is assuring us that he will indeed remain alive in the community, and not just in the community – in the individual Christian.

I think of so many of you who have gone through or are going through difficult times. My mind and heart goes out this week to a young man in our community who was in a car accident Friday, Tucker Anderson. As difficult and horrible as all these things are for friends and family, I continue to see how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of those impacted bringing comfort – reminding them of the presence of God.
Every single one of us has been touched by or will be touched by moments of life where we need the presence of God in our lives to be real and powerful. The Holy Spirit is always with us, but often it isn’t until we really need the encouragement of God that the eyes of our hearts open to sense that he is alongside of us – helping us up off the ground, giving us the encouragement we need to trust for the next moment.

I Believe in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God who is with us, guiding us in all truth and coming alongside us to heal and encourage.

I Believe…In God the Creator

Genesis 1:1-3
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.

We recite it every week.  The Apostle’s Creed.  For some of us, it has special meaning.  For others, it is just what we are supposed to do and doesn’t really mean anything at all.

The truth is that no matter what camp you may fall in, whether the Creed has meaning or seems to have no meaning, the Apostle’s Creed is forming you more than you can even imagine.  The Apostle’s Creed is not something we form.  It is something that forms us.  Creeds are not something we make, as much as they are things that make us.

And the very first line of the Apostle’s Creed declares, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  The Nicene Creed begins, “We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Each week in worship we declare this formative understanding of God.  God is creator of all and everything that exists is dependent upon God.

By believing in God as Creator, we affirm that we are created us in God’s image.  God is maker of heaven and earth and all that is in it.  We are God’s children, formed in God’s image.  The imago dei, the image of God, dwells in us.  This is significant in how we view the world and how we view ourselves.

Growing up, I was exposed to the “Plan of Salvation”?  There were four statements in the Plan and they went like this, “Man Has a Problem, We Are Separated From God; Your Works Cannot Save You; God’s Has a Solution, Jesus Christ; How Do We Accept Christ, Faith”.  This simple plan of salvation was taught to me from a young age, but it wasn’t until college that I realized it was missing something very important – and it was the Apostle’s Creed that helped me discover it.  The first step in the plan states we are, firstly, sinners, separated from God.  This is not the first message about humanity in scripture.  The very first message about humanity in scripture is “You are Created in the Image of God!”  That changed everything about the way I perceived not just the plan of salvation, but all the people I meet every day.  The starting point made all the difference in how I viewed humanity.

The first line of the Apostle’s Creed also affirms that God formed creation out of the chaos, bringing light in the darkness.  Illumination is a significant part of the creation story.  Light reveals to us that God was present even in the darkness – God was and is present in the formlessness…the void…and the chaos.  Out of that chaos and darkness, God brought order, harmony, balance and unity…and God still does that every day.

I was talking to a good friend this week about a difficult time in her life she had experienced a few years ago.  In processing all the ups and downs and twists and turns, she was able to see how God was moving even in the dark chaos.  She could see God’s work of order and harmony in the midst of her own void, bringing light to her life and those around her.

I believe in God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth – in that one statement, we are reminded of our identity as children of God and that God is with us even in the dark chaos of life.  I need to be reminded of these things every single day.

Crying Out From a Dark Place

Psalm 137
1By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our harps. 3 For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! 6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” 8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

“You are forgiven” I wrote, “but when you die, you are going to hell.” I wrote the words matter of factly and without great emotion. These words were not written to a stranger or a criminal. They were written to my father as he lay in the CCU recovering from a massive heart attack in 1989.

I am not proud of those words now, but when I wrote them I was struggling to move from Hate to Hope. I was struggling to move from the desire for vengeance toward’s God’s call to love. My father walked out on my family when I was 14. He had an affair and decided he wanted something else in life. Needless to say, I hated him for that.

Babylon was not home for the exiles of Judah. They had been captured and carted away to a foreign land. Their temple was destroyed, and now they are lost and in despair. The Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. All of the elite, the teachers, business leaders, land owners, artists, all of the prominent people have been taken to Babylon. Only the poorest were left behind to remain in the land and intermarry with Canaanites. They were taken from their homes and land. They were separated from their families. Their homes and their Temple were destroyed. Their families killed. Their children murdered.

Here by the rivers of Babylon, we see the children of Judah expressing pain as they remember Zion. Their captors mock them and sarcastically call for them to sing a song of Zion – “where is your joy?” But the Psalmist asks, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?” We don’t belong here in Babylon. We are refugees. We are slaves. How can we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?

Verses 7-9 are very difficult for us. The words shock us, but if we think about it they express the same feelings many of us have had when we have been through suffering at the hands of others. The Babylonians killed families including children. Children represent the future of their people. Verse 9 represents the pain of the people crying out, “They deserve the same thing they did to us!” I can completely understand this. I’ve been there myself. We’ve all been there.

The Psalms of lament speak to us about putting our suffering and struggle to speech TO God. I really believe that one of the main reasons many of us cannot move on from hate to healing and hope is because we refuse to let go of the pain. It becomes a crutch for us. We won’t let it out. Many of us won’t even give it expression.

I am not proud of what I wrote to my father 1989, although I could come up with 100 reasons why he deserved it. And if I shared those reasons with you, many of you would say to me: I would have done the same thing. My father never asked for forgiveness and never even acted like he did anything wrong. He just lived his life the way he wanted never thinking about the consequences.

I ultimately learned that it was not about HIM for me to be made whole. All through my teenage and college years I was sitting on the banks of the rivers of Babylon trying to sing a song in a foreign land. I was miserable and filled with resentment. Giving those feelings “words” during my freshman year of college was the beginning of liberation for me. I am not lifting up the way I did it, what I am lifting up is the need for expression of our deepest pain and anger.

In order for the pain of our lives to be healed by God, we must give it expression. Cry it out to God – no matter how it may offend our sensibilities. I think this is the beginning of healing. This is how we move from hate to hope and healing.

What do you need to cry out? What is in you that needs to be brought to God in prayer?

Break the Silence…Lament!

Read Psalm 74

We are told all the time that all our problems are solvable.  The wars are solvable – we need either more or less troops.  Our illnesses are solvable – we just need the correct diagnosis and the right medicine.  Our poverty is solvable – “those” people just need to work.  The problem with this assumption is we all know it is not true.  Life is more complex and intricate than we often assume.

One of the powerful messages we are reclaiming during the Lenten season at Wesley is that the Hebrews did not feel that masking the emotional pain of life was appropriate.  They brought their pain to God and cried out in God’s presence.  They were not afraid to speak these prayers of darkness to God.  They believed that this was the only way faith worked – you bring the good to God and you bring the bad to God.  You bring all things to God.

The lament of Psalm 74 is a communal cry and prayer of the Israelites as the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 576 BC.  You can hear their cry as the elements and carvings of the temple are destroyed.  You can feel the pain as they desecrate the holy space.

Professor Walter Brueggemann gives us some wonderful insights regarding the Psalms, especially the lament Psalms.  This “outline” of lament may help us to reclaim our cry. (Spirituality of the Psalms)

First, Brueggeman says that a lament is a cry of expression that always addresses the Lord God. What is said to God may be scandalous and offend some of our sensibilities; but the ones who lament are completely committed, and they believe whatever must be said must be said directly to God who partners with us. We have permission to speak freely, but that speech is always directed to God – honestly and openly.  We bring all we are TO God.  A lament is not a cursing of God, but it is an honest prayer and expression TO God.

Second, the Rev. Dr. Claus Westermann, the great 20th century Old Testament scholar, pointed out the distinctive pattern of the lament.  There is an inherited way it is done.  There is order to it.  This order of the prayer was/is recognized by the Israelites.  The lament has two components:

  • The Plea which is a complaint that God should correct a skewed situation.
  • The Praise where the one praying always moves from a sense of urgency and desperation to joy, gratitude, and well-being.

In Matthew 8:1-4, there is a brief healing story.  “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; 2and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 3He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.””

In his book Psalmist’s Cry: Scripts for Embracing Lament, Walter Brueggemann shows how this healing story models for us the way that lament works as a powerful means to address the emotional pain in our lives and not just mask the symptoms.

First, the leper comes to Jesus and admits his status and despair – his “plea”.  He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than one of the most wounded. He doesn’t come to Jesus on his terms, pretending to have control over his life.  He kneels before Christ and says “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  I am unclean, I am broken, I am weary and I am downtrodden – but you can make me clean.

Second, we notice the trust this healed man places in Jesus.  What if Jesus wouldn’t heal him?  But is more than that, there is an ongoing trust.  He trusted Jesus with not only his initial healing but also with whatever was to come after – to go to the priests and present offerings (and keep the healing quiet).

We have seen this trust in all the lament Psalms we’ve read so far this Lenten season.  There is a definitive plea and always a move to praise…even in the midst of fear and pain.

The lament points out that there are no easy and quick solutions to many things in life.  Not every problem is “solvable”.  But that does not mean we lose our voice.  The Psalms of lament say to us, “you can go to God in darkness and despair and speak to God, and in that plea we can place our trust in God.”

God Weeps With Us

Matthew 26:37-50

“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want…”

I will never forget a story shared to me by Bill Mallard, one of my theology professors at Emory. He recalled a story of visiting a friend whose husband had died way too early in a tragic situation. As the people were at the house grieving, a friend of the husband asked Mallard in the presence of the wife, “Bill, where is God in all this?” Bill Mallard shared how he looked back with tears in his eyes and he replied, “God is here. And he is weeping with us.”

That’s not always how we think of God. We get that God is with us, but the weeping part has never been a part of our understanding.

N.T. Wright is the former Bishop of Durham and now Professor at the University of St. Andrews. When students would come to him and say, “I won’t be attending chapel, I don’t believe in God,” his reply was, “Which God is it you don’t believe in?” This would cause them a little hesitation, then they would begin to describe something like this, “I don’t believe in a God up in the sky looking down, a God who doesn’t care about humanity and suffering, a God who is removed from the world.” N.T. Wright’s response was, “I don’t believe in that God either!”

On this Palm Sunday and as we begin Holy Week, we are reminded of the last week of Jesus’ life. During this week, we see betrayal, suffering, and death. The death of Jesus at the hands of those in power. This was always God’s plan, but it doesn’t make it any easier for Jesus. You see, we seem to forget that Jesus was a man (yes, he was God in the flesh, but let us never forget that he was a man) – human flesh and blood just like us – and he suffered tremendously.

At this moment in the Garden of Gethsemene, Tom Long points out that “we see the collision of wills and desires at work”. This happens to us all the time in our Moments in the Wilderness. The collision is between the divine will and the human will. There are times when we can clearly draw lines of distinction between divine and human wills, but when times are difficult and suffering and grief are present, the lines are not as clear. We’ve all dealt with this – when something has happened to us – a broken relationship, divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of anything of value or importance – we struggle with the why. That is normal and God doesn’t have a problem with that at all. The hard part is when we move beyond the grief work and try to figure out the why. When we struggle to answer the why of the conflict between the human and divine wills, we find confusion and a lack of clarity. This causes many of us to believe God is not with us, God doesn’t care, or God somehow caused and we just have to accept it.

In the Garden of Gethsemene, we see Jesus grappling with the same thing. The tension between the divine will and the human will. Trust me; it’s not easy to see God and believe and understand when you are in the midst of great suffering. Here we see Jesus struggling in his soul. He is profoundly anguished. Jesus knows his life is in peril. He knows what is coming and he doesn’t face it with stoic resolve. He is emotional, full of sorrow, and distressed. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 42 and 43, his “soul is cast down” and he is “deeply grieved even to the point of death.”

In this moment of trouble, we have been taught that Jesus says, “Alright God, I know what I’ve got to do, give me the strength.” In almost every church Sunday school or sanctuary stained glass is the image of Jesus kneeling in the garden with his back straight, his eyes toward heaven, and a light beaming down. Funny thing is that the passage in Matthew 26 says that Jesus “threw himself down on the ground and prayed.” Jesus reveals deep pathos and humanity by asking God to provide a way out, an easier road that his life may be spared.

Jesus can relate to our grief and suffering. Not only because he has felt suffering and stared into it with the same questions we have, but because he also knows what if feels like to go through it alone. I think it is ironic that he asks his friends to stay up with him to pray. They cannot. This passage of waking them up and them falling back asleep communicates something we all know; we go through suffering alone. Jesus experienced this. Thomas Merton writes, “When a man [sic] suffers, he is most alone. Therefore, it is in suffering that we are most tested as persons. How can we face the awful interior questioning? What shall we answer when we come to be examined by pain? Without God, we are no longer persons. We lose our humanity and our dignity.” We must suffer with faith, knowing God is with us – knowing God weeps with us.

Let us look deeper into the life of Christ and say, “The God I believe in is not some God living in the sky who doesn’t know me or my struggles.” No, we serve a God who is revealed through Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus who died for us -yes; but Jesus who has also suffered. Jesus is acquainted with our griefs and our sorrows when we are in our moments of wilderness.

Reflections on Suffering by Thomas Merton, Part 4

The staff at Wesley is continuing to struggle with the writings of Thomas Merton in our spiritual formation time. Wanted to share some of it with you.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 5: The Word of the Cross: On Suffering (Part 4)
• When is suffering useless? When it only turns us in upon ourselves, when it makes us only sorry for ourselves, when it changes love into hatred, when it reduces all things to fear. Useless suffering cannot be consecrated to God because it is fruitless and rooted in sin. Sin and useless suffering increase together.
• But the grace of Christ is constantly working to turn useless suffering into something fruitful after all. How? By suddenly stanching the wound of sin. As soon as our life stops bleeding out of us in sin, suffering begins to have creative possibilities.
• The great duty of the religious soul is to suffer in silence. Too many people think they can become holy by talking about their trials. The awful fuss we sometimes make over the little unavoidable tribulations of life robs them of their fruitfulness. It turns them into occasions for self-pity or self-display, and consequently makes them useless. Be careful of talking about what you suffer, for fear that you may sin. Job’s friends sinned by the pious explanations they gave of suffering: and they sinned in giving Job a superficial explanation. The only decent thing is silence – and the sacraments.
• In order to face suffering in peace: Suffer without imposing on others a theory of suffering, without weaving a new philosophy of life from your own material pain, without proclaiming yourself a martyr, without counting out the price of your courage, without disdaining sympathy and without seeking too much of it. We must be sincere in our sufferings as we are in anything else. We must at once recognize our weakness and our pain, but we do not need to advertise them.
• We cannot suffer well unless we see Christ everywhere – both in suffering and in the charity of those who come to the aid of our affliction.

On Suffering, Part 3: From Thomas Merton

2 Corinthians 4:8-11
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

Each Tuesday, our Wesley UMC staff engages in time of spiritual formation. We have been journeying through Thomas Merton’s, No Man is an Island. I’m posting the excerpts from Merton as we discuss suffering, which has always been difficult for me to process and understand. Maybe, as Merton points out, I’m too selfish.

Excerpts from Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 5: The Word of the Cross: On Suffering (Part 3)
• Heroism alone in the face of suffering is useless, unless it is born of God. Divine strength is not usually given us until we are fully aware of our own weakness and know that the strength we receive is indeed received: and that is a gift. The fortitude that comes is from God. It is God’s strength, which is beyond comparison and not complicated by pride.
• To know the Cross is to know that we are saved by the sufferings of Christ; to know the love of Christ who underwent suffering and death in order to save us. To know God’s love is not merely to know the story of His love, but to experience in our spirit that we are loved by Him, and that in His love the Father manifests His own love for us, through the Holy Spirit.
• The effect of suffering upon us depends on what we love. If we love ourselves selfishly, suffering is merely hateful. It must be avoided at all costs. It brings out the evil that is in us. The person who loves only themselves will commit any sin and inflict any evil on others merely in order to avoid suffering himself/herself. Worse, if one cannot avoid suffering, they may even take perverse pleasure in suffering itself – showing that they love and hate themselves all at the same time. If we love ourselves selfishly, suffering brings out selfishness. Then after making known what we are, suffering drives us to make ourselves worse than we are.
• If we love others and suffer for them without the love of God, we may gain a certain nobility and goodness. It may bring out something fine in us and even give glory to God, but in the end a natural unselfishness cannot prevent suffering from destroying us along with all we love.
• But, if we love God and love others in Him, we will be glad to let suffering destroy anything in us that God is pleased to let it destroy, because we know that all it destroys is unimportant. If we love God, suffering does not matter. Christ in us, His love, His Passion in us: that is what we care about. Pain does not cease to be pain, but we can be glad of it because it enables Christ to suffer in us and give glory to His Father by being greater, in our hearts, than suffering would ever be.

Thomas Merton on Suffering

I Corinthians 1:18-25
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written;
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island, Chapter 5: The Word of the Cross
• The Christian must not only accept suffering: he/she must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering. Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.
• Suffering is consecrated to God by faith – not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God.
• Suffering has no power and no value of its own. It is only valuable as a test of faith. To believe in suffering is pride; but to suffer, believing in God, is humility.
• Pride tells us we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is inside of us. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek Him in suffering, and that by His grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to receive more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself, but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering, but our selves.
• The Cross of Christ says nothing of the power of suffering or of death. It speaks only of the power of Him Who overcame both suffering and death by rising from the grave.
• What after all is more personal than suffering? The awful futility of our attempts to convey the reality of our sufferings to other people, and the tragic inadequacy of human sympathy, both prove how incommunicable a thing suffering really is. When a man/woman suffers, they are most alone. Therefore, it is in suffering that we are tested. How can we face it? What shall we answer in the pain? Without God, we lose our humanity.
• When suffering asks, “Who are you?” we must be able to answer distinctly, and give our own name. By that, I mean we must express the very depths of what we are, what we have desired to be, and what we have become. All these things are sifted out of us by pain, and they are too often found to be in contradiction with one another. But when we live in Christ, our name and our work and our personality will fit the pattern stamped on our souls by the sacramental character we wear. We get our name in baptism. Our souls are stamped with an eternal identification. Our baptism, which drowns us in the death of Christ, summons upon us all the sufferings of our life.
• Suffering should call out our own name and the name of Christ.