On Suffering for the Name

Though it might be argued, theoretically, that a Christianity in which men know how to picket, but not how to pray, is bound to wither, theorizing is not required, because we can already observe the logic of events. The fact is that emphasis upon the life of outer service, without a corresponding emphasis upon the life of devotion, has already led to obviously damaging results, one of which is calculated arrogance. How different it might be if the angry activists were to heed the words found in The Imitation of Christ, “Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”

The essence of pietism, by contrast, is the limitation of primary interest to personal salvation. Even today, by the highways, we can see signs paid for by somebody, which urge us to “get right with God.” The evil of this well-intentioned effort lies not in what it says, but in what it so evidently omits. The assumption is that salvation is nothing more than a private transaction between the individual and God and that it can become an accomplished, dated event.

From The New Man for Our Time by Elton Trueblood

Lent 2007

Have you ever suffered for the Name? Recently, I have begun to ask Jesus for grace and courage to suffer well for him if he calls me to do so. This has been a significant step for me because like most others, I do not relish the idea of suffering nor am I a particularly courageous man. Yet the New Testament makes it clear that those of us who wish to follow Jesus must take up our cross daily and follow him (e.g., Luke 9:23, Acts 5:41, Romans 8:17, 2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 1:29, Hebrews 10:32, 1 Peter 1:6). And while I have suffered in the past, it has mainly been the result of my own mistakes or wrong-doing.

Last week, however, I was presented with the opportunity to suffer for the Name and my witness for Christ was not exactly stellar.

The stimulus was the issues Trueblood raises above and I was mocked for being too pietistic. As my critic’s mocking laugh escalated, so did my anger until it got to the point where I had to leave the room before things got entirely out out hand. But once I walked out, I knew I had missed the opportunity to witness effectively in my suffering for the Name.

Afterwards, I reflected on why I let the person’s mocking get to me. Ironically, after reading passages from The Imitation of Christ, I was reminded again that my reaction, in part, betrayed the fact that I have not yet put my whole trust in Christ, that the opinions of others still are important to me. And so I am “back to the drawing board” in prayer so to speak, asking Jesus to strengthen me so that if he asks me to suffer for him again, my doing so might bring him honor and glory the next time. This will not be an easy road, but it is one on which I must embark and persevere.

Parenthetically, I was also disheartened that not one other person besides myself confronted my critic’s mocking behavior, behavior that is simply not acceptable under any circumstance, but that is a different topic for a different day.

What about you? Have you ever suffered for the Name? If so, were you able to witness effectively in your sufferings or did you fall short like I did? Tell us your stories so that we may uphold one another in our witness and respective faith journeys.

What Are You Striving For?

Sermon delivered at St. Matthew’s, Westerville, OH, on March 4, 2007. If you’d like to listen to the whole thing, you can do so by clicking here.

Let us pray. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning, St. Matthew’s! Before I begin, I would like to welcome Bishop Price this morning; we are delighted that you could be here with us today. Bishop Price asked me to preach this morning and as I was preparing my sermon, I could certainly relate to the deep and terrifying darkness that fell over Abram as he slept. Bishop, does my ordination really depend on me getting a standing ovation for my sermon at the 8:00 service? Pray for me, St. Matthew’s! Pray hard for me!

What’s the human condition?

In today’s text, Jesus tells us to strive to enter the narrow door. The Greek verb for strive is ag?nizomai, from which we get agony, and which means to fight or struggle, often as in an athletic contest. Life is hard. We see it rather cynically summed up in the old bumper sticker adage, slightly modified, life’s a bummer and then you die. And because life is hard, it involves striving, struggling, and suffering. It starts at birth, doesn’t it? Childbirth involves labor and great pain. Most of us remember the struggle of growing up—the striving for popularity and to be accepted, the striving to get the latest toys, clothes, or gadgets. As we grow older our striving continues. We strive to find just the right mate or to gain an education or to find the right job so that we can achieve financial stability. As parents we strive with our children and those who interact with them. We strive to advance our careers and sometimes with our colleagues at work and our friends and loved ones. Many of us struggle to deal with broken relationships or hopes or dreams. Some of us struggle with financial loss or ruin. Later in life we struggle with aging and deteriorating bodies and then comes the ultimate struggle—death. And so it should not surprise us that in today’s text, Jesus tells us to strive to enter the narrow door. Jesus, being fully human and fully divine knows better than any of us—life’s hard and is a struggle. Given this fact, then, the question becomes, “what are we striving for?”

Many of us choose lots of different things to strive for. We work long and hard to provide for our families and ourselves. We build retirement funds and buy all kinds of life insurance in the hopes of gaining some semblance of financial security. Some of us work hard at living healthy lifestyles, eating just the right foods, exercising regularly, and refraining from those things that are harmful to us. Others of us put our hopes on technological and educational advancements, believing that science and education can solve many, if not most of, our problems. Many of us strive very hard to control every aspect of our lives (even those things over which we have no control) believing that the more control we have, the better off we’ll be.

And then a tornado strikes and all that we’ve worked for is gone in an instant. Or a bus crashes through an overpass and those whom we love are killed. Or a catastrophic illness strikes us (or someone we love) and wipes out our savings as we (or our loved one) slowly dies. And in those moments, we suddenly realize that we are quite alone and do not have nearly the amount of control we thought we had. We realize that life is indeed a bummer and then we die. Welcome to the wide door of life.

Where’s God’s grace?

But there is another door, a narrower door, and those of us who choose it will find life, both here and hereafter. And just like other things in life, we have to strive to enter it. But those who do are promised power—the power of God to help sustain them in their greatest trials and sufferings, the promise that we are not in this life alone, that amidst our strivings and struggles and sufferings and sorrows, we can find hope, joy, contentment, and peace—the very presence of God—to help us in our striving. It is the promise that God gave to a childless Abram that his descendents would be more numerous than the stars. It is the promise God gave through Jeremiah to his broken and despairing people during their Babylonian captivity. It is the promise the Risen Lord gave to his disciples (and through them to the rest of us) that he would be with us always.

It was his relationship with the Living Lord that led Paul to talk about the power of Jesus to transform our mortal and decaying bodies into gloriously resurrected ones, i.e., the promise of life forever in Christ. But Paul also believed that the Living Lord gave him power to live this life. It was this promise that prompted Paul to urge the Philippians to imitate Paul in their living. What did Paul’s life look like? He talked about being crucified with Christ and longed to suffer with Christ so that he could attain Christ’s glory. In spreading the gospel he had been beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and threatened with murder. He knew hunger, thirst, and nakedness. He had despaired of his very life. Yet he could say with confidence that nothing in all creation could ever separate him (or us) from the love of Christ, and that he had learned to be content with whatever he had because he had surrendered himself to the One who had suffered and died for him. And so we see the secret of Paul’s power—he was striving for Christ so that Christ would live in him, i.e., he had given up control of his life and turned it over to Jesus. Paul believed the promise and because he believed, he learned the promise was true.

Where’s the application?

And so during this season of Lent, how do we strive to enter the narrow door? First, we are called to believe the promise without demanding proof that it is true. In other words, like Abram and Paul, we are asked to accept the promise of God to be with us and sustain us without demanding proof first. While the Bible never prohibits us from asking the “why” questions, neither does it give us an answer to those questions. We are asked to let God be God and believe that he loves us and is good to his word. Like it or not (and being the proud headstrong creatures that we are, most of us don’t), the only to find out if God’s promises to us are true is to believe them and live accordingly. That means we must choose to surrender our lives to Jesus, and to seek his will for every aspect of our lives. To do this, we read the Bible to learn God’s general will for all people and we pray to learn God’s particular will for us.

Second, we work to overcome those things in our lives that prevent us from surrendering to Jesus and ask his help in doing so. This is where self-examination, fasting and other forms of self-denial during Lent can be very helpful. In my case I am fighting the sin of gluttony—itself an indication of a sinful self-indulgence that turns me inward instead of outward to Christ and others—and so I fast one day a week to help me control my gluttonous urges. This is where mutual Christian accountability within small groups can be so helpful because in them we can find the help and support of others who love and care for us enough to hold us accountable in our faith journey.

Last, we come to church regularly to worship with other believers and find our Lord present in our fellowship as we feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. In a few moments we will come to the table to partake in the body and blood of Jesus, real and visible reminders that our Lord is always with us, helping us in our strivings and sufferings. The church calls these things means of grace and it is the consistent testimony of believers across time and culture that they work. They are further reminders that we do not strive and suffer alone. I will close with two quick stories of my own struggles that I will illustrate what striving and suffering might look like [personal testimony: out of work and last week’s incident].

So what will you strive for in this life? Will you choose the wide door that the world offers and try to do it your way? Will you put your hopes and dreams on the broken, the finite, and the mortal? Will you continue to strive to be a control freak? Or will you choose to strive to grow in your relationship with the One who knows that life is hard but who has the power to help you find the peace, contentment, and joy you need to live now and throughout all eternity?

In his suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus not only has done the impossible work for you, he also promises to help you find the desires of your heart if will trust him enough to let him do so. We don’t have to strive alone. We have the Author of life to help us along the way. He loves each one of us and desires that everyone come to him so that none may be lost. That’s good news, now and for all time.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Reflections on Dad

My dad died three years ago today on a rainy day much like today. While it has only been three years, it seems like he has been gone forever. And while the pain I felt over his death is mostly gone, I still miss him terribly. I know he is alive and with Jesus but I miss hearing his voice and seeing his face. Having said that, my dad is very much a part of me and I often catch myself doing things he would have done, thinking about things the way he would have thought, or saying things he would have said.

Funny how that works.

I do not want my sadness to have the last say, however; to do so would be to give up my Christian hope. God blessed me with the two greatest parents a kid could ever want. They loved me, disciplined me, instilled solid values in me, protected me, and provided for me. They let me be a kid when I was young and stuck with me as an adult, even when I did things I know brought them hurt and disappointment or that they disapproved of. Humanly, it is the closest thing to the love of God that I can imagine—not approving of my bad behavior but loving me throughout and inviting me back to relationship when I chose to separate myself from them—and which I still enjoy from my wife and dearest friends. Moreover, I am thankful for my mom’s presence and find joy and peace in knowing that dad is alive and well, freed from his bodily prison that held him captive in his last years; that was very hard to watch.

Yet I often wonder about how we are encouraged to love and forge relationships only to have them ultimately severed by death. But on this day, sad as I am about my loss (not dad’s new life in Christ), I am thankful for this abundant generosity of God in the blessings of my family. Thank you, Lord, for providing me with a wonderful family, both now and for those who have gone before me. Their passing reminds me that only in You can I find real life and continuity. Because You are constant and eternal, only in You can I place my ultimate hope, trust, and dependence. I can live with that. I hope those of you who might be reading this can too.

Enjoy your new life in Christ, dad; I love you and I look forward to seeing you again. It’s a long, cold, lonely winter but Easter is coming.