I am doing something new this year.
We have just a small group of young people who are ‘affirming their baptism’ this fall: four fourteen year old’s who will stand before our congregation and claim for their own the faith they have been raised in. Or maybe it is better to understand this as allowing themselves to ‘lean into and lean on’ the gifts of God which have been so generously shared with them.
I am doing something new this year. Oh, as in other years we are inviting them to choose a Bible verse and reflect on it. This time though, I asked them to come with three questions. With three things they are wondering about.
I met with one of them this morning: a young man who towers over me now, but who if I squint I can still see the little boy he was, cowering behind his mother the first day I met them.
So here they are: the three questions young Aidan shared with me today:
How do you envision God?
Where do you see God at work in the world?
Do you think God knows the future and so then gives you experiences to prepare you for it?
Now those in his community know some of the challenges this particular young man has faced. He is now in remission from childhood leukemia, but without a doubt his questions are rooted deeply in his own experiences of suffering and pain, illness and healing, fear and renewed hope. Quite simply, he has already come up against more challenges than many of us do when we are still so young. And yet, eventually, life puts us all there wondering at life’s meaning and the place of God in all of it. Surely these are the very questions underlying the exchange between Jesus and Peter today and the teaching Jesus shares following.
- Who is Jesus?
- Who are we as we seek to go after him?
- What is the meaning of this carrying and this suffering and this dying? And how is it possible that all of this is possibly redemptive?
I know what I said to one particular fourteen year old this morning. I assured him that God did not make him sick, that God does not work that way. At the same time, he will forever be shaped by what he has been through and it likely will shape his sense of where God is calling him in the world. He has a certain interest now in what scientists do in medical research and in how doctors are part of bringing healing. And without a doubt, he will always understand what is going on the worlds of children who find themselves sick as he was.
So, no, I do not believe God causes such suffering to any of God’s beloved. But will God use where we have been with all that we have experienced to invite us into a kind of ‘cross bearing’ for the sake of suffering ones in a broken world? Absolutely. Every day of the week.
Of course, his understanding of discipleship ran contrary to everything Peter and the other disciples had grown up expecting of a Messiah. No doubt, they like you and I were raised with a wholly different vision of what success looks like.
I mean, look around the world today. It is not those whose life work is ‘cross bearing’ for the sake of the most vulnerable who are rewarded. Talk to any CNA who literally cleans up after us, any school teacher digging into their own wallets to pay for supplies, any person behind any fast food counter who suffers the abuse of customers almost daily, any school board member or public health worker in these powerfully divisive times, for that matter, any therapist, social worker, public defender, and on and on. Or spend a few minutes with the parent of a sick child, a spouse trying to make their ailing beloved one comfortable, a grown child doing all they can for a parent’s comfort and you will encounter those whose work is not highly valued by the world, but who may well come close to ‘cross bearing’ for the sake of those they are called to serve. The world does not measure these as success though, does it? Not in the time of Jesus and surely not today.
Each and all of these reflect the places and ways life leads us, with both the opportunities and obligations which are laid in our paths. And from time to time like young Aidan we may find ourselves picking up our heads (in response to an assignment, in his case) and wondering at how God has prepared us and how God is calling us and what it all means. Like Peter and the disciples in the midst of all of these we also may find ourselves pondering:
- Who Jesus is.
- And who we are to be as we seek to go after him.
- And what is the meaning of all that is often hard and is it, will it, finally be redemptive, leading us also to gain or save our ‘lives?’
- And what does all of this look like in the middle of our work days, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our communities?
We are reminded, of course, as we hear the words of Jesus now, that the ‘cross bearing’ of which he speaks is likely much more than the personal giving and working and yes, sometimes sacrificing and suffering we do because of where we find ourselves in the world, for such ‘cross bearing’ as he and his disciples did and do was the sort that meant he was (and later they and we would be) going up against greater entities, governmental powers even which could and would exact punishment in the form of public execution. And yes, very few of us find ourselves living and dying as such martyrs. At the same time, in the midst of all the day to day ‘cross bearing’ we find ourselves doing, perhaps the day does come when we hear the call to something more.
Indeed, last week I wrote about the the call that is often ‘driven by love’ in each of us — also often formed and shaped by a particular life experience which has been ours. This was how I reflected upon the Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin at Jesus’s feet begging for the healing of her little daughter. (Driven By Love) My friend from seminary, Wilbur Holz, who serves as a pastor in South Dakota sent me a note wondering if the call is not even greater than just seeking to bring healing and hope to the needs we encounter, but to shape a world where no one has to go to the lengths so often required of us to seek such relief or healing or hope. To be sure, to do so would be this ‘call to something more.’
So in answer to Aidan’s question. No, I do not believe God does causes hard things to happen to us to prepare us for what will come later. But God will use them. And in using them, we will be invited to ‘pick up our crosses’ in love for the sake of others, often in particular ways. And those particular ways may well open in us and in the world the chance to work to shape a world where no one has to go to such extraordinary lengths to receive relief, healing, hope and on and on… And doing so may be when we step into the path that Jesus walked most surely of all.
- How would you answer Aidan’s question about how God works in our lives?
- I have come to think of ‘suffering’ as redemptive as it opens me/us up to the suffering of others for then it somehow binds us to the whole human community, somehow then ‘saving’ us. What are other ways we might understand such suffering?
- What does such ‘cross bearing’ in the path and the way of Jesus mean to you? Is it personal only? Is it more than that? What has your life taught you about this?
- Finally, I find myself wondering now what it means for our congregations to ‘pick up our collective crosses’ as we bear witness to God’s love in this time of pandemic. For instance, how do we stand with and advocate for public health workers (and their families) who are being threatened and medical staff who are stretched beyond what they can possibly bear? How do we do this in a world where the loudest and most threatening voices who (too often in the name of their faith) seem totally unaware of or uninterested in what it is to ‘love and protect our neighbors’ in this critical time?