I continue to take my walks in the park each morning. You see the same people doing their morning exercise; two women friends walking and talking; they always smile and say “Good morning” as we pass. One guy walking the dog, a couple of months ago, said “Hello,” so I said “Hello” back. I guess he didn’t hear me because he stopped and shouted “I SAID HELLO, DON’T BE SUCH A GROUCH!” There’s the older man with a walker who strolls to a bench and there just soaks in the space. There’s the jogger who always says, “Be blessed.”
And then there is this new guy who I have noticed in the past six weeks. We passed each other and started saying “Hello.” He was a very cheery guy. Then “Good to see you again;” Then, “How ya doin’?”, “It’s chilly out today,” or “Where is your hat.” We didn’t stop, just passed each other, our greetings trailing after us on the air. Then one day, he said, “Hey, hi, Pastor!” Cover is blown! He saw me walk across the grass towards the church.
As the days passed, I found out he works for the city. I found out that he goes to church. I found out that he walks five circuits a day. And the other day he stopped and so I stopped too. I found out that his son was killed in Afghanistan. I found out that three months ago he had cancer surgery. He said to me, “Pastor, I don’t know how I would have made it through the death of my son without my faith.” And, “This cancer thing, sure teaches me again that there are no guarantees, and that each day,” and then he stressed, “EACH DAY is a gift. I may not be here in a year, but I am here now.”
St. Paul writes: “And not only that, but we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
A remarkable conversation and a remarkable passage from St. Paul.
I don’t really know if I have ever suffered. And I certainly know instances where suffering did not produce endurance, character and hope – but rather bitterness, narrowness and a crushing of the spirit – let’s be honest. Christian faith is not helped by Pollyanna notions and foolish claims of false optimism.
However, this man’s story and this passage converged upon me and swept me up.
Paul writes: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul is writing to the church, to those who identify themselves as Christians.
Paul is putting his stake in the ground: Jesus shows you God’s love. God loves you, yes YOU – not because of what you do, or who you are – but just because that is how God is. If you have accepted this, or if this is what you want to trust, or are drawn to; if this is how you try to align yourself (which is another word for justification – how you set up your page) – you perceive reality in a peculiar way, a Christian way. Paul writes that you have access to peace.
By “peace,” I think he means, a sense of location – a grounded-ness, a centeredness, which keeps you steady in the midst. Paul is offering you a view of reality that declares that every moment shimmers with possibility, that there is something larger happening in every exchange and every experience; there is more to life than meets the eye.
It is a peace, Paul says, that may even lead you to trust that suffering is a gift. I know that is strange. But claiming this gets you through things – like a death of a son, like cancer, like looking squarely at your own mortality, and through other things, like just getting through the day.
Now I just said, remember, that believing this way “gets you through things.” And do you know what the root of suffering means? It means “to go through.” The Greek word that is translated “suffering,” is “thlipsin” and can also be translated “affliction,” “distress,” but the one I like is “pressure.” Now that brings us to day to day things.
Where are your pressure points? Where are you feeling agitated, those growing edges in you that are bumping up against each other – the choices that cause you to awake at 2 am, – that is what I am talking about: the final exams, the job choices, those moments when you are not so confident, you are not quite sure what will happen next, and you are a bit vulnerable, little scared, excited. Like being graduates!
Christian faith is the cultivation of an attitude: “No matter what happens, this too shall pass.” Or “There is something more up ahead.” Like a gardener or farmer – you keep tilling the soil – you endure, you wait patiently, you keep on keeping on. Because you know in time fruit will come.
If you can imagine that what you are going through is part of a bigger story, that you are working towards something – people who trust that God is writing straight with your crooked lines – then you press on, you endure.
And Paul writes that this patience, the ability to endure, to stay in the midst, leads to character –– you have been through things and gotten to the other side, you have paid the price, made the sacrifice, you know more.
You have to know sadness – if you are alive. You have to fail – if you are ever going to succeed. You have to have your heart broken, at least once if you are going to recognize what true love is. You have to feel that panicky feeling sometime and push through it. You have to “break on through to the other side!”
You will never feel content if you’ve never felt scared. Jesus Christ won’t protect you from fear, Jesus Christ will push you through it!
And death is the last hurdle to push through. I will never forget the words of Cardinal Bernadin who was in charge of 2.3 million Catholics in Chicago. He was told by his oncologist that his cancer was terminal – he had, maybe, six months. “Well,” he said, “this changes everything…I have the opportunity to live what I’ve been telling people… that we have to look at death as a friend.”
“Death as a friend?” Where did he get that? Cardinal Bernadin, like St. Paul, put his stake in the ground. Even though the way was misty – he was keeping his eyes on the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) Bernadin was going through – he was going to continue to till the soil and work it – and his character became shining – and his hope didn’t disappoint him; through the sadness, doubt and fear.
Or our own Lissa, written up in the Plain Dealer last Sunday by Regina Brett. Brett writes that Lissa feels lucky? What?
Lissa in her blog inserts a poem by Mirabai:
Oh friend, understand….
The body is like an ocean, rich with hidden treasures.
Open your innermost chamber and light its lamp.
Within the body are gardens,
Rare flowers, peacocks;
the inner music; with the body a lake of bliss, on it,
the white soul-swans take their joy.
Lucky? Joy? – Wow – in the midst, that is some anchor, some stake, some peace which passes all our understanding, some endurance, some character, some truth.
Don’t get all bungled up in faith as a series of propositions that you have to intellectualize like 2+2 = 4. I can’t prove God to you. I can’t prove that God is love or that there is life after death, or that “joy comes in the morning.” This isn’t science – this is perception. Every day has its pressures. You only have one choice – how are you going to live? How are you going to get through the day?
I am putting my stake in the ground, where Bernadin did, and St. Paul did, and Jesus Christ did – where Lissa has, and where that guy who walks in the park has: “I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but I know ‘this is the day that the Lord hast made,’ so I will rejoice and be glad in it!”
It’s a walk in the park.