Suffering Well

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1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11 

Did you catch the first sentence of our reading today? Just in case you were settling in and didn’t hear the first verse I read, listen again:"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you…"

These first Christians were facing a fiery trial of persecution and suffering at a scale we can only imagine… only seen by Christians living in places like Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, Egypt, Saudia Arabia, and China. Christians in America are blessed when it comes to freedom of worship and the practice of faith. Sometimes I hear American Christians talk about being persecuted, but I ask you… Did anyone stop any Christian from attending church this morning? Was anyone going to suffer for going to church like our brothers and sisters do in other parts of the world?
We are blessed, indeed.

Still, for us, the first words may make us pause… "Beloved… do not be surprised… (when you suffer)…"

But we are… aren’t we. We are surprised. Or at least I used to be.
Somewhere, sometime a long time ago, if you were like me in my early years of believing, I sort of believed that believing in God and Jesus was a ticket to avoid suffering. A sort of free pass. But it was a naïve thing to think. And life had a way of making me question it… as I saw friends who were far more faithful than I suffer and even die… as I found myself in circumstances of pain and asked those questions like, "Where was God?"-as if to say, "God, you let me down. You didn’t keep up your part of the bargain. You remember the bargain God. I believe in you… I come to church and praise you and serve you and you offer protection to me."  Of course as I say it, that sounds more like the mafia than God!

"Beloved… do not be surprised when you face a fiery ordeal…

But we are… Why do you think we are so surprised?

David Goetz, in his book, Death by Suburb, helps me out. He writes that comfort has become a defining value in American culture. Today, to be American is to be comfortable. We have fast-food so we don’t have the discomfort of preparing our own meals; $6 cups of coffee so we don’t have the discomfort of making our own and 2-3 cars per family so we don’t have the discomfort of using public transportation. A Stanford university study illustrates just how tightly the quest for comfort is woven into the fabric of the American culture. The study examined American patients and Vietnamese patients who were recovering from fractured thighbones. It found that the Americans received 20 times more pain killers than the Vietnamese. It also found that, in spite of such large amounts of pain killers, 4/5 of the Americans still complained of pain. Only one-fifth of the Vietnamese complained-though they were on lower doses of painkillers. The author of the study offered this explanation: Americans believe that all pain is treatable. If we experience any pain, we complain and expect someone to get rid of it.

Goetz claims that this expectation of comfort even affects American Christianity. He suggests that most Americans pursue spirituality in the hopes that it will make their lives more comfortable. We get religious because we hope that God will deal with those things in our lives that are making us uncomfortable-health problems, stress at work, family tensions and the like. Goetz calls all of this an ‘environmental toxin’ which makes American Christians anemic.

Well, say what you will about faith and suffering, but it is clear from 1 Peter that the pastor had no expectation that following Christ would make things more comfortable. In fact, things might get worse if you stand up and join the church with a profession of faith. Fiery trials may have to be faced. And we’re not just talking about choosing between soccer and coming to church. We’re talking about major sacrifice and suffering for the faith.

What the pastor knows are some basic truths. God never promised a pain free life… especially if you are a Christian trying to live faithfully in a secular world.

Any basic biblically literate person can see this is true if they just read the book of Acts and the life of Peter or Paul. Faith and suffering go hand in hand sometimes. That can be sort of discouraging when you wake up and realize that this is true.

But listen to the pastor. Does he sound discouraged?
"But rejoice, insofar as you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings (for your faith), so that you also may be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed…humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you…. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you…"

Knowing that a pain free life is not possible for anyone who is breathing… and especially for those trying to faithfully follow Jesus Christ, this pastor wants to help his beleaguered congregation and wants to help us learn how to suffer and suffer well. Faith may not be a free pass out of suffering, but it may be the ticket to learning how to suffer and suffer well. How to grow from suffering.

In fact, it is my experience that those who suffer well often discover a life that is more content and spiritually richer than for those times when life is on auto-pilot. For it is in the midst of such suffering that one may discover the richness of God’s grace… one may indeed be drawn to a closer relationship with Christ as we share in his suffering.

The key word is share in his understanding. It is in the sharing of the suffering that contentment and joy is discovered… the pastor says, that when you suffer, "cast all your anxieties on God, because he cares for you."

Which is a way I hear the pastor saying to us, you cannot suffer well alone. I know, I know that runs against our American cultural values of standing on your own two feet…sucking it up… working through our own problems… not bothering anyone… all of that.

Let me tell you a secret… ministers are the worst offenders in my experience. We buy into the thought that you and our colleagues will think less of us if we cannot manage our suffering all by ourselves. Well, may I suggest to you that that attitude comes from an American value system, not a Christian value system.

The Christian value system says that suffering is to be shared… and that it is in the sharing that we are led to peace, comfort and even joy.

Those who know this best may be those involved in 12 step programs. Most of those who have gone to those programs have only done so after a time of tryng to manage their drinking, drug abuse all by themselves…. But failing. And on the way to hitting rock bottom, they inflicted suffering on themselves and others. But when they go to an AA meeting, they discover they are not alone. They share in suffering and draw strength from others. They find a path that leads to healing and hope.

Suffering well means sharing suffering in the Christian faith.

That’s why we have Stephen ministers at the Kirk. Stephen ministers are trained to stand with, by and for those undergoing a period of pain. Sometimes it is a lost job… a lost marriage… lost health… the death of a loved one… name your pain and they are learning about how to share it. If you need someone to be with you in a time of suffering, they are there for you. Sharing with a Stephen minister is one way you can "cast your anxiety on God" and receive strength. May I also say, if you have come through a time of suffering and wish to help others… you may be ready to become a Stephen minister. You may be just the wounded healer (as Henri Nouwen calls it) that God can use to help others suffer well and grow. Stephen ministers are trained to be there for you and to pray for you and with you… you never need be alone.

In fact, you don’t only need to be alone… you were never meant to be alone as you struggle and suffer. Paul would say to the Galatians, "Bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ"… Our pastor today says that in times of suffering, "Cast your anxieties on God"…

Sharing with God and bearing one another’s burdens- That’s the way to suffer well… that’s the way suffering can lead you to a place of peace, comfort and joy you may never have known before.

Fred Craddock tells a powerful story of what this peace looks like when one suffers well. Fred says a colleague of his at Phillips University, a young woman, taught physical education.
"She was a marvelous person, young, vigorous, unmarried. One night she was sitting in her apartment, grading papers, and she heard a knock. She went to the door, unlocked it, opened it, and there stood death, with his yellow face staring right at her. She slammed the door, locked it, and called the doctor. He said, "Malignant." She had surgery.

A few months later she was back and I said, "Hey, you’re looking good."  She said, "I never felt better." Now she had lost some weight, but she was back teaching physical education, bouncing on trampolines and all, doing great. Everything seemed to be wonderful. She was at home one night watching television when she heard a knock at the door. She went to the door, opened it, ahnd there he stood with his yellow face. She slammed it and locked it and called the doctor. He said, "Chemotherapy."

Oh, she was sick. All her hair came out, so she got a wig, and she came back to school. I said, "That’s becoming. You should have been wearing that all along." She said, "I feel pretty good." And she was teaching again.

One night she was sitting there grading papers in her room and she heard a knock, so she went to the door, unlocked it, and there he stood, old death with his yellow face. She slammed the door and tried to lock it, but the lock was broken.

She called her friends and relatives. Everybody gathered and we took turns leaning against that door. "We’re not going to let him in. We’ll keep him out." That’s what we said. We’d look out the window and there he sat under a tree with his yellow face.

And then one night she said, "Get away from the door.""What?"
"Get away from the door."So we got away from the door, and he came in.

I felt sorry for him. He likes to come in with his fiery darts of pain and fear. But on this night there he stood-in one hand he had peace, in the other, rest.

Oh, I know, (says Fred), there are people who say, "Well, it’s too bad you lost your friend,’ and it’s true.

But as we gathered at the church a couple of days later, as the congregation stood together in a great crowd and sang, "Now Thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices… " I heard a whisper. It was something, says Fred, really something.

What did Fred mean by that-"But I heard a whisper?" What was it Fred heard? He doesn’t say. But I wonder… I wonder if it was the voice of Christ… saying to those gathered in their time of sorrow… It’s okay. I’ve been there with you all along as you shared this journey with your friend… I was with her… and I am also with you… Remember what I told my friends? , "Lo, I am with you till the end of the earth."  Remember, I am with you… Always have been… always will be… no matter what life brings…I will be there for you…always…and forever. Amen.

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