Trinity Sunday 2019
Dr. Gardner Taylor was an amazing preacher. He once told the story of preaching in Louisiana during the Depression. Electricity was just coming into that part of the country, and he was out in a rural, black church that had just one little lightbulb hanging down from the ceiling to light up the whole sanctuary.
He was preaching away, and in the middle of the sermon, the electricity went out. The building went pitch-black, and Dr. Taylor, being a young preacher, didn’t know what to say. He stumbled around until one of the elderly deacons sitting in the back of the church cried out, “Preach on, preacher! We can still see Jesus in the dark.”
Sometimes that’s the only time we can see him- in the dark. And the good news of the gospel is that whether or not we can see him in the dark, he can see us in the dark.
It must have been Coach Edens, Pt. Loma’s legendary football coach where I first heard the phrase. Probably somewhere near what felt like the second hour of windsprints, he would shout “No pain, no gain, gentlemen.” Pretty standard fair for a guy who had been coaching high school football forty years and bucked the 70’s long hair by clinging to his 1940 crewcut.
Years later, a neighbor grappling with personal difficulties was told, “Don’t waste the pain.”
Coach Edens’ mantra suggests pain is good, at least for muscles. Of course it has become a cliché for folks when they encounter the pain of others. Probably because they fear the dark of pain spreading to their own life and have no real awareness of how to effectively comfort another in darkness.
The former suggests that good will come of pain or suffering in life, if we do not waste some opportunity it seems to give us. Yet is either what Paul meant when he wrote to the Roman church, “We boast in our pain, for in the end, pain produces hope!” Is the audacity of hope for Paul that pain is the perquisite for hope, or is it something else?
In recent years, studies have begun refute the old adages shared a moment ago. Aches and pains in physical exercise may not be signs of growing muscle strength and endurance, but rather warning signs of muscle overuse.
Yet the cliché “No pain, no gains,” predates my old football coach by 300 years. English poet and priest Robert Herrick wrote a poem in the seventeenth century called “No Pain No Gains.” If little labor, little are our gains; Man’s fortunes are according to his pains.”
Paul is writing to us about more than a formula for bigger muscles or greater success in life. It is about not wasting the pain we encounter in life. For the real issue is not that we suffer, we must all acknowledge that we will all suffer. No, the real issue is how we suffer. What do we do with the pain we encounter?
At the end of his life and ministry Paul wrote Romans as a summary of what he had learned of faith, hope and love through his own suffering. Pain was not desirable, or to be pursued or wished on anyone. Butt when it comes, and it will, faith, hope and love, will aide us in growing through it.
Peter Steinke, a pastor and family systems counselor takes Paul’s approach when he says that “we ‘waste’ suffering if we gloss over, deny, avoid, or neglect its message…If, however, we can learn from pain it is not wasted but a source of life and health.”
Born in Holland, Theologian Chris Beker found himself as a fourteen year old sick and in a hospital when Nazis came to round up the invalids in his town. “Carted off” by train to forced labor and a concentration camp outside Berlin, Beker was dehumanized. Yet it would take years for him to recognize the absolute victimization and hopelessness that he encountered. Everything that he was accustomed to in secure, pre-war Holland ended in an apocalypse. Yet after the war, Beker’s since of his own suffering seemed “puny” in the context of the suffering of the world. What Beker suffered is what we today recognize today as PTSD.
In his powerful book “Suffering and Hope,” Beker reflects how the person of faith comes to grips with suffering to journey on to the path to hope.
His first conviction is that suffering cannot be quantified. That we cannot box it, counting the days until it is complete. There is no sense that one more rep will make us stronger, or one more year and it will be over. Nor should we ever pursue suffering as some form of devotion to God. As Christians we should always rise to protest senseless suffering because it is contrary to God’s will. And finally, the only hope we can cherish in order to avoid utter despair, is the hope of God’s triumph over death.
Beker uses Bonhoffer’s dictum regarding cheap grace as a reminder that what he means is not “cheap hope.” A sort of prescribing of various biblical quotes or stories as bandages for a person’s bloodied soul. Hope which is divorced from the reality of suffering or trivializes it as nothing more than a stubbed toe is meaningless.
This week an NBC news report noted that U.S. rates of death from suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol have reached all-time highs. The indication is that the scope of global and private suffering are at such intensity that they demand better answers than simple clichés and bromides. Despair from suffering is at what Beker calls apocalyptic levels.
Beker’s response then is to encourage us to engage once again in the reality of God’s action at the cross. At that moment when darkness cast out the light of life in the death of Christ. That dark suffering, then passes to the light of hope at the introduction of the resurrection. And just as the crucifixion was an abomination, so too we are to pretest that which adds to the despair of suffering in our own world. Be it the opioid crisis, lack of affordable health care, or the individualism that so fractures society.
In essence, it is not to quote or know the story. It is to feel the story that offers us Paul’s path through suffering, to endurance, to character to hope.
Perhaps the most effective way to get at this is to consider G.F. Watts late nineteenth century painting Hope. The painting depicts a woman in worn, almost ragged classical garb, sitting atop a globe, meant to be the world. Blindfolded and head bowed, she clutches a lyre, David’s ancient stringed instrument. She plucks the one remaining string on the instrument, cocking her ear as if struggling to hear a note arise from the battered instrument.
To view the painting, with its earth-drab colors, bedraggled woman, and battered instrument, one is confronted with the conflict of despair or hope. Many who view the painting see the missing strings, the player in despair and conclude it cannot be played.
In doing so, they miss what is happening in the painting. The instrument is being played, by a woman. In fact it is the one string that provides hope, that there is still promise of a different future for her and the instrument.
The string of the instrument allows us to identify it as being just that, something capable of playing music. Without that one string, it is merely a wooden contraption that a blindfolded woman is clinging to. That one string is hope.
Yes, Jesus sees us in the dark of our suffering and despair. But in the cross and resurrection, we may grasp the light that enables us to see the hope that will light the path ahead. That’s how we make use of the suffering we will most assuredly encounter on the journey.