Faith at Home….At Home in Faith
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 16, 2014
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
“[God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…” (v. 29)
Lately I have been pondering the role of affliction in the
formation of faith.
My pondering was triggered by a presentation I heard at a recent conference on “Rethinking Faith Formation” at Luther Seminary.
The speaker who captured my attention more than all the rest spoke about “The Virtual Body of Christ,” how digital communications and social media are reshaping the ways faith is formed.
This speaker (a young Lutheran professor at Hamline University) made me rethink my assumptions about “virtual reality.”
But what really caught my attention was when early in her presentation she quietly “dropped” the bombshell that several years ago she’d been diagnosed with stage IV cancer.
When she uttered the awful “c” word—I sat up, tuned in and could not be distracted. For, as intellectually stimulating as her presentation happened to be, her personal journey with affliction, her facing of a grievous, potentially-fatal disease “transfigured” everything she said.
It was clear that this dreadful disease, rather than knocking the wind out of her sails—had in an amazing way stirred her imagination and driven her fresh thinking about how Christian faith is planted, shaped, and formed.
It seems at first counter-intuitive, to imagine that affliction could help shape or form faith. Usually we assume that affliction, is an affront to faith—it calls faith sharply into question—makes it hard to believe in or ponder the things of God.
Nowadays it seems that whenever something terrible happens in the world—folks who may otherwise rarely think about God are suddenly ticked off at God…wondering in the first place how a God of love could allow such tragedies to take place…..and all too often, that’s about as far as anyone delves into the topic.
But what about those souls all around us, not to mention the soul inside of us, that experiences affliction not so much as an affront to faith as it is a kind of flint or foil that sharpens our faith, tunes our attentiveness to God and opens us to experience the divine life in fresh ways?
A while back Rahm Emmanuel, when he was chief of staff in the Obama White House, popularized the notion that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste….to which I’m tempted to add that we in whom Christ is being formed dare never squander our experiences of affliction, either.
Paul certainly seems to have thought so, as we over-hear his musings in this text from Philippians.
The pallor of death and loss hangs over this passage. Paul is in prison….he anticipates the very real possibility of death, his death, taking him away from this veil of tears. Paul speaks about feeling caught betwixt and between, hanging on to this life in order to keep pursuing his ministry, or letting go of this life, in order to live in the fullness of God, to be with Christ and live by sure and sturdy sight rather than the blurriness and dimness of faith.
Paul writes of affliction, not as an armchair expert on the subject, but as one who is intimately acquainted with the precariousness of this life, whether he was facing persecution for Christ’s sake (as was the case here in Philippians 1) or whether he was wrestling with his famous “thorn in the flesh” in II Corinthians 12. In other words, Paul ponders the existential experience of suffering, whether it is suffering for Christ or suffering in Christ.
Whatever the case may be, Paul writes here in Philippians to people whom he regards as being in the same boat with him. Rather than assuming that affliction can only attack or deconstruct faith, Paul takes it for granted that suffering suffuses our whole life in Christ. Indeed, suffering is a gift and a calling—“[God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…”
I realize we’re on dangerous ground whenever we start talking this way. The reality of domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse wherever it takes place, rightly makes us reluctant even to seem as though we’re redeeming suffering in any way, shape or fashion. We are careful, oh so careful, to avoid “justifying” any pain one person might inflict upon another…and we certainly don’t seek out suffering, in some weird, twisted hunt for meaning.
Our nervousness about giving any quarter to suffering should not, however, deter us from pondering with fierce honesty the affliction that will inevitably come our way. Make no mistake about it, affliction will find us all. We don’t need to search it out—affliction will surely knock on our door.
And then what? Will we become embittered by our encounter with affliction? Will we seek to escape it, at any cost? Or will we “mine” the moment, trusting that even when we’re falling apart, God is fashioning ways to do vital business with us?
The great 20th century radio preacher, Paul Scherer, named the nub of the matter when he declared: “Jesus never occupied himself with the way out….To [Jesus] it was the way through that mattered.”
If experiencing affliction isn’t a matter of finding a way out, but rather discovering a way through….how might such affliction contribute to the formation of Christian faith? Let me suggest three ways:
First, affliction helps with faith formation by keeping us honest about ourselves.
Affliction, however it comes our way, always reminds us that we do not possess life, have it under our control or within our grasp. We are sinful, vulnerable, fragile beings, whose fortunes can change at the drop of a hat. With all our Maker’s other creatures, we constantly look beyond ourselves for all that we need.
So affliction aids in faith formation by piercing through all our illusions of grandeur, self-sufficiency, invulnerability. Suffering removes our blinders so that we see ourselves as we really are—beyond our denial and false pretensions.
Second, as affliction yields recognition of our true condition, we are opened up to those around us.
If Christian faith thrives only within a deeply communal life, suffering helps us by transporting us out of ourselves. In her little book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott observes: “When we agree to (or get tricked into) being part of something bigger than our own wired, fixated minds, we are saved. When we search for something larger than our own selves to hook into, we can come through whatever life throws at us.”
What may begin as our own need to have others help us through our affliction….will morph into a more profound perception of how faith calls us to reciprocate the favor when affliction strikes others. Again, from Anne Lamott: “To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us….ultimately we’re all just walking each other home.”
All of this, we come to realize, transpires within the economy of God….which is the third way that affliction feeds faith formation. Suffering opens us up not just to ourselves and to one another—but to God.
And the God we are opened up to by affliction is so much more than a “fair-weather friend.” The God we meet when affliction opens our eyes is the One who has already borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. This God is with us when we are happy and hopeful and bright-eyed. But the God we meet in Jesus “specializes” (if you will) in encountering us in the darkest moments of our lives.
Affliction as it inevitably finds us….affliction gives God something to work with, an emptiness and a longing God will give anything to satisfy.
Or to put it another way: maybe God allows affliction to find us in order to prevent us from low-balling God…and to seduce us into placing before God our biggest, most bodacious requests: a cure for the cancer, a second chance for a shipwrecked marriage, a resurrection for every rude intrusion of death into our lives.
Just so, God addresses and heals our affliction, shows us a way through it—actually, becomes the way through it!--and enlists us to do the same for others.
“If there is a God,” writes Anne Lamott, “if there is a God, and most days I do think there is, He or She does not need us to bring hope and new life back into our lives, but [God] keeps letting us help…” thereby fashioning us into “people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.