This is the fourth in the UCCDM’s Lenten Devotional 2014 series. This devotion for the Third Sunday in Lent comes from the Rev. Gunnar Cerda in Ohio. Rev. Cerda has served as local church pastor, has served as chaplain for Widening the Welcome, and currently serves as a hospital chaplain.
Romans 5:3-4 “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…”
Sometimes I find it hard to read Paul.
It’s not just because of his rhetorical style, but also because his theology is hard to swallow. I mean really, who boasts in their sufferings? And what is the deal with suffering producing endurance? Don’t you need a bit of endurance to, well, endure the suffering when it comes in our lives? And what about Hope, why is it last, as in a goal-line to which we hope at some point to arrive?
My wrestling with passages like this, and sometimes with Paul in general, is that he seems to have this idealistic view that suffering is positive, that it is somehow justified, which is where he loses me. In a way it almost feels patronizing, as if Paul was saying “get over it” or “shake it off.” After all, suffering leads to endurance and then to character, so this is really just a character building opportunity for you.” Thanks but no thanks Paul.
See, I am the parent of two great kids, one who happens to have an intellectual disability named and labeled as an Autism Spectrum Disorder. As a parent, such a life event changes your worldview, and you find yourself shifting from looking at the world from the dominant viewpoint of “normal.” You start to see how your child doesn’t fit in with the other kids. You start to see the dirty looks and people whispering because your child doesn’t behave or talk the way others expect. You start to notice posts on facebook highlighting how “back in the day” kids were not “brats” because people knew how to be parents. “There’s nothing a good spanking can’t cure!” You notice—and cry—when your child is sitting alone and ignored by other kids.
And you know you are not alone. I recently saw a post on a blog from a parent who wrote seeking some understanding. This parent’s words were all too familiar as I read them:”…it always feels like a slap in the face when people, knowing my situation, say they were blessed with healthy children. Are only the healthy and wealthy blessed?”
I sensed right away what was behind this question. It is grief, which is a manifestation of suffering. And it is a suffering many of us experience, not always because of the physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, visible disabilities, hidden disabilities and mental health concerns, rather, because society values ability over accommodating disability—where those who are “able” are blessed. Thanks to culture, life is a journey through suffering, which often looks more like an endurance race. We don’t need Paul to remind us about suffering, endurance is the ticket. And Hope, hope that someday it will be different.
So I had all of this running through my head, and my emotions, leading me to give Paul a hard time. For as I prayerfully reflected, I recalled the words in Exodus when God speaks to Moses. It is a powerful moment when God says “I have heard the cries of my children. I know their sufferings and I have come down to redeem them.” There are the words of our UCC Statement of Faith, reminding us that our Savior, Jesus the Christ, has come to us and shared our common lot. And then there is the outlook of our beloved United Church of Christ, that God welcomes any body, every body, Christ’s body, into a church that is Accessible to All.
Indeed, God knows and shares in our sufferings! In those moments when we feel like we are alone, or on the outside looking in; when we are praying for the hurtful attitudes of the world to change…God understands, Christ “gets” it, and the Holy Spirit calls us into a community of care and support, while comforting and advocating for us. How about that, God doesn’t give sufferings or disabilities or mental illness, rather, our Still Speaking God shares in those journeys.
Now that’s something which gives me hope! And that hope keeps me going, even when the going gets tough. That’s the endurance I need in those times when the grief or suffering seems too much. And I can realize all of that because of the enduring character of God, pouring out upon me a character of faith.
So maybe I’ve been too hard on Paul. I’m still not sure about the boasting in my sufferings piece (I’ll leave that to someone else to explore). But if I could suggest a helpful edit in your rhetoric Mr. “of Tarsus,” then perhaps we could try it this way: We know that we can endure our sufferings, no matter what, because we have hope which comes from a God who really understands what we are going through.
And THAT is something that I can hang on to.
Holy One who knows and understands our sufferings—during this season of Lenten reflection, empower us to live into your mission and companion others in enduring their sufferings. Bless us to be a blessing to others, both in our character and as your church which you call to be Accessible to All. We ask this in the name of the Christ who shared our common lot and defeated the power which suffering has over us through hope enlivened in the resurrection. Amen and Amen.