What’s the deal with Judas Iscariot? I’ve been thinking a lot about Judas this week.
He’s a major player in the Holy Week drama, but we usually hear little about him, except to condemn him for his selling out Jesus to the Jewish and Roman authorities.
And we know little about why he did that. The gospels can’t agree on his motive:
Mark says nothing about motive, Matthew says he did it for money, and John’s gospel
says he was induced by Satan.
Over time there’s been speculation that he might have been sympathetic to the
Jewish radicals who wanted to attack Rome with violence and was therefore frustrated when Jesus didn’t choose that path. But we just don’t know. Nor do we know why afterwards, he apparently regretted what he had done.
But here’s another question: If Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, as
John’s gospel suggests, why didn’t he try to stop him, or why didn’t he try to find a
different place to hide? John says it’s because it was all part of God’s plan but
that doesn’t really explain much.
Here’s how I’ve come to think of it: I believe that in creating humans in God’s image,
God has given us the great gift of freedom of choice, of being able to know what the
right path is, and being free to choose it or not. It’s the freedom that Adam and Eve
exercise in the Garden, and it’s the same freedom that all the actors in the Holy Week
It is a measure of God’s love and respect for us that God invites us to follow God,
tries to show us the way but does not force us to follow. God wants our actions to be
freely chosen, based on our conscience. In allowing Judas to do what he does, Jesus
respects the human dignity even of someone who he knows means him harm.
The last days of Jesus are a swirl of different people making different choices in
response to him: the crowd in Jerusalem, which acclaims him on Sunday and cries for
his execution on Friday; his disciples, who abandon him and later realize that all is not
lost; his women followers, who are faithful throughout; the Jewish leaders, divided over
how best to deal with him; and Pilate, who releases one condemned prisoner and
We might see Jesus as strangely passive in this drama, in allowing people to act
against him, but we might also see him as according everyone the chance to choose
their own path, and trusting that God will see it right in the end.
The human heart is mysterious: In Holy Week we observe faith and fear, hope and
despair, hatred and love, life and death, and we know that these all part of our lives, too.
Jesus is not the master manipulator, forcing others to do his will. He is teacher and
model, inviting people to follow his path of love and sacrificial service to others.
Every year in Holy Week we have the opportunity to respond anew to that invitation to choose faith over fear, hope over despair, love over hate, and new life over death.
On this feast of the Epiphany that ends the Christmas season, we still have the manger scene up, a very traditional sort of tableau that combines the birth stories we have in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. it’s a powerful symbol of what the gospel writers are trying to tell us about the birth of this unique figure – not just in human existence but in the existence of the cosmos. So we have cosmic elements present in this scene – the stars, the angels – and all of it is focused on the adoration and worship of this baby. We have the shepherds and the wise men, representing the poor and the rich, we have Jews and gentiles – the wise men are foreigners from another country. And it’s not just humans who have come to adore, but the animals as well. So all of creation is gathered around this child to offer worship and homage. Powerful symbolism, but it raises some questions.
One of the things that’s interesting about the gospels is that there is a split in the four of them. Two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, have a birth story, and the other two don’t. So why would that be?
I think one of the things that the gospel writers are wrestling with is the fact that on the one hand, even from the time of his birth Jesus is revealed to us as this unique, divine figure. But he’s not going to begin his ministry for another thirty years, well into adulthood. So what was he doing in those intervening thirty years? If he was self-aware as a divine figure really from the time of his birth and growing up, then why wasn’t he out there doing stuff?
Now Mark answers that question very simply, because for Mark, Jesus doesn’t realize his nature and his calling until his baptism. And it’s from the point of his baptism by John that there’s a flash of understanding. So presumably he’s been growing, he’s been learning, but it’s not until that point that he realizes that God has called him to a unique purpose. And in the meantime, presumably, he’s been living a fairly ordinary life. There are no stories in the gospels about those intervening years, which probably means nothing spectacular really happened.
Well, for some early Christians that was not a satisfactory understanding. So from pretty early on, we get some writings called “non-canonical,” meaning they didn’t end up in the official collection of New Testament books, for reasons that I think will be obvious in a minute. These are sometimes called the infancy gospels, and they have stories of Jesus as a child – with the assumption that as a child, he has the divine powers that he’s going to reveal later as an adult. For a couple of reasons these stories are problematic.
To use an analogy: one of my favorite superheros in the new superhero pantheon is Spider-Man. And Spider-Man, if you’re not familiar with the Spider-Man story, is a teenage boy who accidentally receives powers that are kind of spider-like, that allow him to go out and be a crusader for justice, etc. There have been a couple of iterations of Spider-Man in the movies, and the most recent one is really my favorite, because it reveals Spider-Man as just an ordinary kid who happens to have these super powers. But given that he’s a teenage boy, things don’t always work out in the best way. In trying to help people and save situations, he misjudges situations, he doesn’t realize what’s really happening, and he creates a lot of havoc. And people actually get ticked off at him.
Something similar happens in the infancy gospels. Because on the one hand there are wonderful stories of Jesus doing good as a young child. So for example there’s a story of a companion of his falling off a roof of a house and dying, and Jesus raises him back to life, and everyone thinks that’s fantastic. There’s a another story when he’s with a companion and the boy cuts his foot with an axe, and Jesus heals him instantly. Well, that’s really cool!
But there are other stories. He has a teacher who’s trying to teach him, and he’s really snarky with the teacher and tells him, “You don’t have anything to teach me. I know everything already.” Which presumably would be true – right? There’s a scene where he’s playing with some boys, and a boy bumps into him accidentally and Jesus gets ticked off and causes him to fall down dead. The boy’s parents are understandably upset, and they go to Jesus’ parents to complain, and Jesus causes the parents of the dead boy to go blind. And the villagers get really upset and go to Mary and Joseph to complain, and Jesus’ parents have the classic response, “There’s nothing we can do with him – he’s out of our control.”
Well, you get a sense of why these stories didn’t end up in the canonical gospels, yes? Because, really, teenage boys – forgive me, teenage boys – don’t always have the judgment and self-control to be able to make wise decisions. Wisdom is something that typically comes with age. (Doesn’t always come, but it’s supposed to.)
So you can see the challenge here: if Jesus really does have these miraculous divine powers as a child, what kind of man would he become? We kind of have a choice: do we want a Jesus, can we identify with a Jesus, who even as a child is aware that he is really very different from everyone else, because he has these miraculous, divine powers. Or do we want a Jesus whose understanding of his mission and of his powers is something that develops gradually over time, and which he finally comes to realize in adulthood.
There’s only one story of Jesus not as an infant and not as an adult. It’s in Luke when Jesus goes to visit the temple at about age twelve, when a Jewish male would become an adult in the congregation. And what Luke says after that scene is that “Jesus grew in stature and wisdom, and in favor with God and people.” I think that’s a nice summary of what we might presume Jesus’ life was like between his birth and his beginning his ministry.
Now for Paul, the idea that Jesus is just a man is really critical. Paul makes a point to call Jesus “born of a woman.” It’s really important to Paul that Jesus is a man, not a god descended to earth, which would be a typical thing in Greek and Roman mythology. But a man, just a man. Paul talks in Philippians about Jesus emptying himself. Yes, he’s the son of God and yet he doesn’t claim that title. Instead he empties himself to experience the fullness of what it means to be human. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, who uses the language of sacrifice in the temple to talk about Jesus’ mission, says Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize with human weakness because he has experienced human weakness. And that for Paul, and I think for the gospel writers as well, is really critical to understanding who Jesus is. That Jesus is able to redeem our humanity because he has fully experienced our humanity. In poverty, in weakness, in obscurity, in all of the ordinariness of daily life. For years and for years and for years. One of the early Christian writers, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, in a famous phrase wrote, in talking about Jesus’s humanity, “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” And the word “assumed” meaning here, that unless Jesus takes on true humanity then he cannot redeem our humanity.
So to go back to the Matthew story and the manger scene, and this moment of glory and adoration. Immediately after this scene Matthew wants to emphasize again that Jesus is born as a very vulnerable child into a dangerous and violent world. At the time of his birth under King Herod he is threatened by violence, and he and his parents have to escape and become refugees and go to Egypt and hide, and when they are finally able to return to their homeland they have to go to an obscure village. It’s an acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God and yet he is living the life of a human being like the rest of us. I think the Jesus I can identify with is the Jesus who has experienced all of human weakness, all of human poverty and suffering. Who has experienced life in its joy and in its sorrow, in its triumph and its tragedy – and who can therefore redeem me and all human beings.
Are you basically an optimist or basically a pessimist? Do you tend to see the glass as half
empty or half full? John the Baptist seems to be a bit of both – both optimist and pessimist. I tend to be a worrier myself, so I don’t see the glass as either half full or half empty. Instead I worry about the glass tipping over and spilling whatever water it might have. My tendency is to look at the future and think about the bad things that could happen.
I feel as if there’s a lot to worry about right now in our world. Global warming or global trade wars, the rising costs of healthcare, mass gun violence, the anger and hatred in our national political discourse, the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor. We seem to be going in the wrong direction, and bad things are coming. You probably share at least some of those anxieties.
John the Baptist confronted high anxiety in his own age. The Jewish people could look
ahead and see disaster threatening them. John the Baptist does not try to reassure them;
instead he tells them, “Yes, you’re right, disaster is coming! You better get ready for it!” He uses their anxiety to try to get people to act, to make changes in their lives that will get them back on the path to God. Now is the time to get right with God.
Because the other part of his message is a message of hope. We hear that in the gospel
this morning. God is going to bring salvation to God’s people. There’s a glorious future that lies somewhere ahead of us. This is the vision that’s also laid out so beautifully in this morning’s lesson from the prophet Baruch: God is going to bring all of God’s children home, God is going to bring redemption. Looking at disaster ahead and yet still finding hope – that’s the balance.
In some ways this balance is essential to our spiritual lives. We are always on the knife edge between being anxious about disaster ahead and looking for the small signs of hope in God’s promised salvation.
I had an experience of this last week. I was in Seattle helping an aging family member move – always a difficult process, but made more so by the fact that they are in a relentless decline in physical and cognitive health. This is something that I know some of you have faced with your own family members or friends, and it’s a bleak kind of outlook to have. You know it’s not going to end well, there’s no bright light at the end, and this is so hard, because you feel there’s nothing you can do.
But in fact I did experience moments of hope and moments of light last week. It came in
small, unexpected moments, and it always involved an interaction with someone else. A brief moment of humor, a word of encouragement, acts of kindness and understanding and grace. It was like going outside on a dark night this time of year and looking up at the sky and seeing a few bright stars. Small signs of hope in the darkness, signs of God’s presence. It was enough to sustain me, even knowing the difficult path ahead.
I feel that Advent is a time like that, when we are experiencing darkness, experiencing
maybe fear and anxiety about lots of things. And yet this is also a time when we can be aware of what the late President Bush liked to call the “thousand points of light.” Do you remember how he talked about this? It was about the people around us and their small acts of compassion and generosity that are pointing the way forward.
So that’s what we can do in this dark season. We can look for those points of light, those
points of hope in the people around us, and we, too, can make our effort to be points of light, points of hope for others. We can do that in the acts of kindness we share with others – we become light to them in the acts of grace and of good humor. We become the light in the darkness, that gives us hope and confidence in the redemption and salvation that God is going to bring for all of us.
The last thing I do before I leave the sacristy to begin a service is to check my cell phone to make sure it’s turned off. Cell phones are a wonderful form of communication, that give us access to all kinds of information anywhere in the world. But they are also a major source of distraction for us. It turns out (I looked this up on the internet) that the average 40-something user looks at their phone 35 times a day, and the average 20-something looks 75 times a day. The latest iPhone operating system tells you every week how much screen time you had on average. Last week mine was 2 hours per day. Wow. My excuse is that I was following the World Series a lot last week.
Human beings are highly distractible creatures. We take in all kinds of sensory input – visual, auditory, touch – and our minds are active all the time. It helps make us the creative, imaginative creatures we are. But we can also be overwhelmed by everything around us. We know how critical it is, in work or in relationships or at church, to be able to focus on the main thing and not get bogged down in distractions, but it’s hard to do. If I ask you NOT to think about elephants for 15 seconds [pause] you just can’t do it. Your brain is telling you, “Don’t think about elephants! Don’t think about elephants!” It doesn’t work.
So we have to find ways to manage distractions so we can focus on what’s most important. Any teacher can tell you that highly distractible students need to find techniques to help them focus. For some it turns out that doodling actually helps them concentrate on what’s happening in class – which seems counter-intuitive. Others become adept at twirling their pencils in their fingers, which may be a distraction for the teacher but helps the student pay attention.
It’s not just students. We all have to find ways to manage the myriad of distractions that bombard us constantly. Across spiritual traditions, people have developed techniques of prayer and meditation that allow them to focus on the divine. Finding a quiet place away from daily activity, concentrating on one’s breathing, using a short repetitive phrase, walking slowly and mindfully – these are all ways of managing distractions and training ourselves to focus better.
Distractions surround us even in church. How often have I, sitting in the pew, come to the end of listening to a lesson and realized I remember nothing about it. Our attention inevitably wanders. “What a cute baby.” “I love the flowers on the altar – I wonder what kind they are.” “This music has too many notes.” “I wish that guy would stop coughing.” And in our church community life it’s the same thing – it’s easy to get bogged down in relatively small things and lose sight of the main thing, which is being the presence of Christ in the world.
Okay, so what does all this have to do with the gospel lesson this morning. The story of Bartimaeus is a perfect little allegory of how we come to faith in Jesus. Bartimaeus is blind – blindness is often used in the scriptures as a metaphor for not seeing or understanding God, of being blind to truth. He calls out to Jesus for mercy – the first step in faith is the appeal for help. Jesus responds by calling him to come and then asking what he wants. So faith involves movement towards Jesus and asking for what we need. Jesus restores his sight – he is able to see the truth and can go on his way.
It’s a beautiful story, but I want to consider it from a different perspective. What if it’s actually Bartimaeus’s blindness that allows him to focus on Jesus? Imagine the scene: it’s a crowded main road, with people doing business, going to market, people having conversations, children and dogs running around. Into the midst of this comes Jesus with his small band of followers. Perhaps people give him a look, but then they turn back to whatever they’re engaged in and let Jesus pass by. But Bartimaeus has no such distractions. He hears Jesus coming and is totally focused on him. When he hears Jesus’ voice among all the other voices, he goes straight to it. So in this case faith comes from not being distracted and focusing on the main thing. Not being sighted helps lead to faith. I’m reminded of the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1)
To be able to do God’s work in the world we need to be able to put aside distractions and focus on the main thing. I think about that in the context of our parish planning about how to develop the church campus. To do this brings up all kinds of issues and problems – many of them important to different individuals. “How many bathrooms will there be?” “What about parking?” “How big will the stove in the kitchen be?” “What about air-conditioning?” But as important as all these may be, they are not the main thing. So we need to learn to develop the discipline of always coming back to the main thing, which is, how can we develop the campus so as to be the presence of Christ in this city, in the world?
It’s not easy to see God in the midst of the world. I think it’s a little like trying to tune into a radio station in the car in a remote area. There’s a lot of static and competing signals, and you have to adjust the tuning very carefully to finally zero in to hear the station you want. The world is full of noise. Tuning in to God requires focus and concentration, and it requires the discipline to be able to manage all the distractions of everyday life, in order to hear that “still, small” voice.
I’m feeling a little strange so far this Fall, because this is the first Fall in thirty-five years that I haven’t been working in a school. I’m so used to the rhythm of school – of the school year and the school day. I realize that much of my identity is bound up in being a teacher. So now that I’m officially retired from teaching high school I’ve been doing a lot of reflection about teaching and learning, and what it means for me to be an educator at this point in my life.
It’s been discouraging in recent years to read about the various ways that the status of
teaching in this country has declined, which includes the low compensation that many teachers receive. Good education is expensive, but bad education is even more expensive, in terms of its negative impact on the potential of our young people.
But I suspect I don’t need to convince all of you of this – there are so many educators among us. What I’d like to do is to consider teaching and learning from a divine perspective and to suggest that education, the activity of teaching and learning, is essentially a divine activity and something that both reveals God’s nature and that draws us closer to God.
I’ve been thinking I would like to talk about education, so I was pleased that this week’s readings are all about teaching – did you notice that? Isaiah talking about the powerful gift of teaching that God has given him, and James talking about the powerful responsibility of teaching, since it can be used for both good and evil. And in the gospel lesson today we have a perfect example of Jesus as teacher – I want to come back to this.
The themes of teaching and learning are everywhere in the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition. Torah, the Jewish law, is not law in the simple sense of “do this, don’t do this.” It’s really a guide for how people are meant to live their lives, in order that they, and the whole community, can come closer to God and understand God’s nature. At its heart is a process of dialogue, both with God and with one another, that leads to understanding and right action. The Jewish tradition of Wisdom (or Sophia) builds on this idea and focuses not so much on wisdom as an intellectual concept as on the everyday practices of life that draw one closer to God.
The ancient Greeks had a parallel understanding of education which, though it’s secular
rather than religious, has much the same goal. The Greeks called this paideia 1, and it meant the education of young people to be good citizens of society, focusing not just on intellectual growth but on all aspects of life (including, for example, the athletic). It was practical and community-oriented, as in the Jewish Wisdom tradition.
If there is a Christian Paideia, a divine education, what does it look like? In the first place, it is fundamentally relational – based on the relationship between teacher and learner, a relationship that reflect that between God and believer. If you think about your own education and teachers who had the greatest influence on you, they were probably those you had a strong, positive relationship with, built over time. Learning in the Jewish tradition is a process of dialogue, of conversation, of give and take among people who are searching for the truth together and are open to new understandings.
This divine education is also fundamentally challenging: it challenges our easy assumptions, our prejudices and narrow preconceptions in order to draw us to a broader vision of reality. It draws us out of our focus on self and opens us to seeing in new ways. In this way it aims to be transformative, to invite us to grow into the people that God wants us to become, and to help the community grow and change in the process.
And in this process, divine education is liberating: in freeing us from self-absorption, opening our eyes to a broader vision of things, helping us overcome our prejudices, it strengths our identity and gives us courage to undertake new challenges.
We can see this at work in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus’ engagement with his disciples is
built on friendship and trust. Most of the stories of Jesus teaching are not about him lecturing but telling stories and then inviting people to ponder what he says. In this episode, he draws his friends into conversation and asks questions. “Who do people say that I am,” he asks, and they respond – it’s clear they have been thinking about this. Then, in response to “Who do you say that I am,” they answer “the Messiah.” They have drawn their own conclusion, but they still don’t understand fully.
He challenges what seems like an obvious answer and points them to a more difficult truth: the path that lies ahead entails suffering and death. They don’t want to hear it, but he demands that they listen. This invites the process of transformation, of them becoming more the disciples that God is calling them to be. And we know they were transformed, to become a community of visionaries who could carry on the work of the Kingdom.
Okay, you’re thinking, that sounds great, but I’m not an educator. But if teaching and
learning is really a divine process, that leads us closer to God, then it’s something we should all be engaged in, one way or another.
There are those who are formally engaged in Christian Paideia – church school teachers and youth group leaders and Bible study teachers – but all of us have the opportunity to engage others in conversation, to help others reflect on their experience, or to introduce them to new practices we find helpful, or to help newcomers feel at home in the community. And each of us has the opportunity to take on the challenge of learning, of broadening our own understanding and being willing to try new practices, even when they are hard. God is calling us to continuous growth and transformation.
I’m not sure how I will continue to be an educator now that I’m retired from teaching, but I hope I will be open to new possibilities, to continue to deepen my own conversation with God.
The Rev. D. Corbet Clark
I’m always intrigued when public figures quote sacred scripture to support some political policy, and there was an example of this the last couple of weeks. As you’re probably aware, the Attorney General of the United States used some verses from Paul’s Letter to the Romans to justify the policy of separating immigrant families at the border. I don’t want to spend time on the policy itself, which seems so contrary to basic teachings of both Judaism and Christianity and such a violation of common human decency, that it doesn’t bear further comment. But I would like to think a bit about the use of the passage from Romans 13, as well as more generally how we, as people of faith, approach an understanding of scripture as a whole.
The section of Romans that the Attorney General referenced is well known: it’s the passage where Paul writes that Christians should be obedient to government authorities, because they are ordained by God, so that disobeying them would be disobeying God. The use of this passage has a long and troubled history in our own country. During the Revolutionary War, guess who was quoting these verses? It was the British authorities, telling the revolutionaries that they were going against God by rebelling against the crown. The response of the Americans was that, well, but Paul only meant obedience to legitimate authority, and since the authority of the British in America was not legitimate, Americans didn’t have to obey. Problem solved.
But of course, the much more problematic use of these verses was during the slaveholding era in America, when slaveholders constantly referenced Romans 13 to attack those who sought to undermine slavery – abolitionists, helpers on the underground railroad, those who refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Slaveholders also made frequent reference to Biblical passages that condone slavery and counsel obedience of slaves to masters.
Taking a snippet from a piece of writing (whether the Bible or something else) to support an argument that one has already decided on is called “proof-texting.” It doesn’t seek to understand the broader context of a passage, it simply tries to use a short piece of text as a weapon to attack or refute someone’s else’s argument. It’s something that people of all political and theological persuasions do often. But I would suggest it’s not how Christians are meant to think about scripture and how it speaks to us.
So how should we be thinking about scripture and what’s the best use of it in our lives? I would start by pointing out the obvious – that the Bible is a very large compendium of a variety of different kinds of writings, by many different authors, composed over a period of a thousand years or so. Understandably, there are parts of it that we may find more appealing and helpful than others. We might favor the gospel stories about Jesus and turn away from the Old Testament stories of wars and violence. But I think if we really want to be faithful to the Bible, we have to read and ponder all of it, not just bits and pieces. The relationship between God and humans is complex and sometimes ambiguous, and the broad range of sacred writings induces us to keep exploring that complicated relationship.
Each book in the Bible has its own integrity and deserves to be treated as a whole. For many years I have taught a course at school on the gospels and the origins of Christianity. One of the first things I have students do is read a gospel straight through from beginning to end. Most students, even church-going ones, have never done that – they’ve only heard the gospels in short readings. They are often amazed to realize that each gospel has a coherence and some clear themes that the author intends in telling the story. They wonder why there should be four gospels, because they are all different from one another, with different emphases. Each gospel, for example, has a different set of resurrection stories – and Mark doesn’t have any, only the empty tomb. When the New Testament was assembled, didn’t people realize there were all these differences? Of course. Each gospel has a unique perspective that helps us get at the truth about Jesus. There is no one way to understand Jesus.
The scriptures are full of contradictions and passages that seem ambiguous and mysterious. It’s possible to disagree about how to understand them. I think God wants us to grapple with these difficulties to go deeper into the truth. In the rabbinic tradition, one rabbi has one interpretation of a passage and another rabbi has a different one, and they argue with one another. It’s precisely at the intersection of competing interpretations that we gain true insight.
It’s tempting to edit parts of the Bible we don’t care for, and I would suggest it’s precisely those parts we don’t care for that we need to pay attention to and try to understand. Psalm 137 is one of my favorites and a very familiar one. It’s a lament of the exiles in Babylon. It begins “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept…” and goes on to express sadness at the loss of their home. It’s very poignant. But towards the end it turns into an attack on their Babylonian captors; “Blessed is the one who takes your children and dashes them against the stones!” We don’t usually read that verse in church. But we shouldn’t avoid it. It expresses emotions of anger and bitterness and desire for vengeance, that are a real part of the human experience and that we have to learn to grapple with in order to understand ourselves.
We also need to understand that each book in the Bible has its own historical and cultural context, different from our own. As an example, Jewish society in Jesus’ time, like Roman society, was very patriarchal. Women had few rights and abuse of women was often condoned or overlooked. When we read passages in the scriptures that seem to justify poor treatment of women, I don’t think we can just say, okay, we just have to accept that. We must be willing to wrestle with how to make sense of such passages in the context of our own culture and social understanding.
Finally, as we try to understand the voice of God in scripture, we know we also have the voice of the Spirit within us, and in some sense we can engage in an inner dialogue, through reading and study and meditation, to allow the scriptures to speak to us. The voice of scripture and the voice of Spirit. That inner dialogue will lead us to new understandings. We should always be willing to entertain new insights, to be ready to change our minds about what scripture is telling us. This is part of what it means to be growing in faith, so that faith itself becomes a dialogue with the voice of God.
If we can spend time to really engage with the sacred writings, if we can grapple with the hard parts, be open to new insights and understandings, then we can hope to truly hear the voice of God in the scriptures.
Is suffering necessary?
Is suffering redemptive?
The human experience is that suffering is inevitable. We have all experienced pain and suffering, from illness or injury, or the indignities of aging, from failure and setbacks in school or in work, from community disasters, from losses of family and friends. Our suffering is not all the same, but we all experience at least the everyday suffering of things gone wrong.
Human beings are remarkably resilient. Resiliency is that ability to cope with failures and disasters large and small, to confront them, to move through them and emerge from them, often in positive ways. We know that resiliency is an essential skill for navigating adult life, and most of us learn the skills, usually through bitter experience.
Resiliency has become a hot topic among educators. We know that it’s essential for young people, as they grow up, to develop these skills, and most young people are able to do that. But in recent years there has been an increasing number of young people, from adolescents to young adults, who don’t seem to be able to cope with even modest personal challenges, who seem overwhelmed by setbacks and disappointments. In my work with high school students at school we have seen an increasing number of young people experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, or depression that prevents them from functioning in daily life. Why is this? And how do young people develop the ability to bounce back from personal challenges?
Resiliency seems to be like a muscle – it needs to be constantly exercised in order to gain strength. We all want to protect our children from terrible things happening to them, but the paradox is that when we as adults intervene too frequently or forcefully in their lives, we may be preventing them from developing the resiliency they need. When kids get into trouble and parents step in to fix the problem for them, when students fail at school and parents intercede with teachers or principals on their behalf, when young people experience disastrous social relationships, and adults try to manage that, we are probably doing our children no favors and may actually be keeping them from learning the hard lessons and gaining the confidence in themselves that they need to be mature, resilient adults.
What does resiliency look like? What are the skills we need to learn? Resilient people are able to draw on people around them to provide support and encouragement – not people who will solve their problems, but who will stand beside them and encourage them to solve their own problems. Resilient people are flexible and are able to adapt to changed circumstances, to alter their course when they face a dead end. “My major didn’t work out, so I switched to a different one.” “This relationship wasn’t going anywhere, so I re-thought my priorities and made a change.” “I lost my job, so I decided to pursue a completely different career.”
And resilient people are able to re-write their life narratives in ways that give them a sense of meaning and purpose. We all have a life narrative, a story about our own lives that gives our lives a sense of coherence and ideally a sense of meaning. So that our story is not just “This happened and then this happened and then this happened,” but more like “this happened, and it was hard, but it set me on a new path that has been very fulfilling.” For example, “I had a hard time my freshman year in college and decided to drop out. I spent a year working in the wilderness and came back from that with a new sense of what I wanted to do with my life.” We are constantly revising our life stories, as new things happen to us and as we make new life choices, and resilient people are able to find meaning even in the sharpest setbacks and failures, giving them strength to move forward in life.
This, I think, is exactly what Jesus is doing with his disciples – trying to instill in them the skills to cope with failure. The disciples are going up to Jerusalem with Jesus full of the expectation that this will be a moment of triumph. God’s reign is going to be established and Jesus will make it happen. When Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer and die,” he’s telling them it’s not going to be like that. He is going to suffer and die because he is human, and it is the lot of all humans to suffer and die – there’s no escape from that for any of them. When he tells them to pick up their cross, he’s telling them that by confronting the suffering that is to come, they will find the purpose that God has for them – if they accept it and deal with it, they will find meaning in it. God will show them the way.
Christianity is a very resilient religion. Think about it: Jesus’s followers expected imminent triumph and instead Jesus was arrested, tortured and executed, and his followers were scattered. That should have destroyed the Jesus movement, but somehow they managed to carry on. The found strength in their community and in supporting one another, they were able to re-frame their mission – how and why they were going to move forward. And most importantly, they rewrote their narrative. They took the cross – a symbol of defeat and death – and they made it into a symbol of hope and new life. And Christians have been doing the same ever since.
I came to my school, OES, thirty years ago. Just before I arrived the school had experienced a catastrophic disaster, when nine members of the school, both students and faculty, were killed in a mountaineering accident on Mount Hood. It could have meant the end of the school, but somehow it survived. People found strength and comfort in one another, not to make the pain and loss disappear, but to bear the pain together. And the school rewrote its own narrative, to incorporate that terrible loss and to reshape the school’s mission to one of care for the whole student and service to the larger community, which had offered the school care in a time of crisis.
I think the same kind of thing is happening now in South Florida. In the midst of the incredible pain and grief of this human catastrophe, the community is finding ways to be resilient. They are drawing together to support one another. They are bearing one another’s pain. And they are rewriting their narrative by taking on a new mission: working together with others to make change in our society to stop the violence associated with guns. In the process they are giving themselves hope in the midst of despair and a sense of meaning and purpose, so that the loss of those children will not have been in vain. We don’t know how that will come out, but it’s a sign of great hope.
How do we cope with suffering? How do we develop those skills of resiliency, as individuals and as a community? We commit to supporting one another when we are in pain. We practice compassion, whose root meaning is to “suffer with,” for those in crisis. When we confront failure, we adapt to new circumstances. If our mission is failing, we don’t dwell on that failure but seek out new ways to move forward. And we continue to rewrite our life narratives, as individuals and as a community, to find new meaning and purpose in the midst of defeat and failure. We take up our own cross, confronting hardship and pain directly and finding in it God’s purpose for us, so that the cross of defeat and death becomes the cross of hope and new life.