Monday, May 27, 2013

Duhkha - Suffering

Ancient Near East Funerary

Readings for Trinity Sunday

Three in One .....
or Side by Side      
ONE God or Three?

Yesterday was the day church fathers set aside as Trinity Sunday. The lectionary readings are at best, a bit of delicate proof texting, to create some context for engaging the deepest of all mysterious doctrinal positions of Christianity, a topic which the other Abrahamic faiths clearly find fault in. How can Christians claim to monotheistic, and claim that God is Three persons, and yet entirely one in existence?

Rather than spending time on the Doctrine of the Trinity, which preachers throughout the Church attempted to answer head on and probably will have left a flock of confused people in the wake of the final "Amen", I'm simply going to take the best of the verses, and continue looking at the idea of suffering: 

Suffering...what's it good for, and where is God in the midst of it?

In my last entry, on the passage from Romans I expressed some concern about ways people think about God being the prime mover in events which cause human suffering. This passage, also from Romans precedes the passage of last week. (I know, go figure, why is it out of order?- because..they could and did.)

"Since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also 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 5:1-5

Let's start by acknowledging that there is a huge diversity of opinions. There are those who believe absolutely in God being always at the root of every occurrence of their life. They hold that every action in nature is the direct result of God using nature to punish or reward the inhabitants of the universe. Their own success or failure is the work of God acting upon them. These will say, in the direst of circumstances, "God is in control." hhmmm really? 

I don't think so.

Here, just to take what I most recently wrote to a former co-religionist, on the topic of God being in control is what I said to her on this weighty matter...
I have to say, although I know you claim God is in control, and I assume that really does bring you comfort or reassurance, I don't regularly find that comforting or even accurate in describing God's hand in the universe. I do believe God is always working to bring about the best possible result out of the failures of human action. But too bleeping much that occurs in the world cannot nor should not be blamed on God. I know the Muslim viewpoint strongly holds to this as well, the idea that God is always in control...but really..asteroids, earthquakes, tornados, dictators, murderers, pedaphiles, predators, ...the list so long... is God in control of all that? Freewill and chaos reign, and God is still at work trying to create order out of it all...and somehow we are invited into that miraculous divine dance of co-creation, everyone needing to choose up sides, for ill or for good. Here we are Kin-dom weaving as best we can while forces tug to try to unravel what God so dearly desires for all creation. 
If you were to classify what I believe, it probably falls more akin to Buddhist philosophy: Suffering Happens.
So to be completely honest, I have to acknowledge all this discussion falls within what I call a big word category, that of "theodicy". Being rather evangelical and non-predestinarian I'm okay not spending huge amounts of time attempting to defend God's power through advocacy of Divine Punishment being executed in this life. Instead, I need something that answers the question what's good about suffering.This passage from the letter to the Romans was Paul's attempt to answer the same question.

I wrote several months ago about the topic of theodicy and referenced a book by Ethicist and Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Tennessee, Stanley Hauerwas, (Naming the Silences, 1990). I needn't repeat what was said before. I do want to suggest a few other things, which relate most specifically to suffering as a theological framework.

Suffering is wrapped up in all sorts of packages. A pregnant mother experiences pains as the child develops within her womb and then, the ultimate endurance test, the pain of labor resulting in the birth. Pain with gain; not bad overall. 

Suffering through persecution, as I indicated in the last post, which was Paul's objective referral, was not desirable per se, but would result in a reward, not measured in human terms. The reward to be received would be at the death of the mortal body. 

As a body of believers, other people's sufferings present occasions for the surrounding community to come together, particularly as we witness during natural disasters. In addition, individuals make it through the suffering of health, economic or natural disaster through drawing upon sources of external and internal strength. 

Like gravity, which holds us to the earth, some suffering does tend to increase the capability to both give and receive support over a lifetime. It provides genuine expression and recognition of what good exists in the universe. You might imagine that compassion is a muscle, and suffering is the stimulus for the compassion response expressed by another person. Internally, making it through an experience of suffering also increases the empathic response so that we can tend to the needs of one another over the course of our lives. But, for this to occur maximally, we require some form of community. 

Nevertheless we must be cautioned that we not become callous in our acknowledgement of suffering. One much overused statement is "No pain - No gain." Research has actually proven that "what does not kill us makes us stronger" is not true. Although we like to look for examples of this, employing what is known in research as a confirmation bias, actual research has clearly demonstrated that traumas repeated over time make the individual more fragile; weakened in ways imperceptible to the human eye. 

These micro-spiritual and psychological fractures require spiritual healing, supplied only by attentive care through a cohort of trained practitioners, among them, healing prayer ministers. It also requires general support and concern from a community. This is the place where I see God being the activating source and force. Through those who have been called into the vocations of healing through rescue, first response, medicine, research, therapy, spiritual care, pastoral and liturgical forms of attending God is immanent and manifesting concern toward the broken and injured of God's creation. 

In the final analysis, there is much suffering that concludes in death, sometimes, the worst being early death of children. The body is not made for eternal immortal existence. There will be a final hour, final minute, final breathe and completion of human existence. The promise of the passage Paul presents to us is quite simple. Being accepted as "justified", in right relationship, we need not fear some torturous existence in the next and eternal realm. The life death and resurrection of Jesus is the archetype of life cycle. Jesus' resurrection is God's final proof that God does control the most important thing, what happens to the spirit at the end of our mortal days. 

If you presently find yourself in the place of agnostic inquirer, I hope this will help you grasp the depths of the Christian message. I understand that it is incomprehensible by scientific method. That's why it's a faith tradition and matter of faith to accept and believe.

The Revised Common Lectionary offers something of a systematic plan of reading your way through the Bible? It is called "semi-continuous". It contains almost all books of the Old and New Testaments over a three year period. With some short breaks, and occasional slight switches in the ordering, overall, it provides a way in which the Church can be guided to read, study and be in conversation about the Word as it may be speaking to the Church in the present age.

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