Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Finding Meaning in Suffering

Malachi 3:1-3
I Peter 4:12-18, 5:6-11

 “There stood Beethoven, gravely ill and totally deaf.  Eyes closed, he kept conducting the orchestra even after they had ceased their performance and the audience had risen to its feet in thunderous applause.  As a singer stepped from the choir to turn him around to see those whose shouts of “bravo” resonated throughout the concert hall, tears of elation filled his eyes.  Perhaps the worst loss a composer could experience had been the catalyst for a remarkably adaptive creativity that allowed him to transcend his tortures to become immersed in the thrill of conducting the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, the “ode to Joy”.  At that moment, and not only in spite of but BECAUSE of his adversity, Beethoven had experienced the thrill of thriving through adversity.”  _ prelude of Beethoven Factor by Paul Pearsall (Hampton Roads Publishing Company, VA., 2003)

I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about suffering lately.  And today’s passages really explore it and call us to look at it once again.  The Christian Education study that we have been doing on Wednesdays with Gary has been awesome.  It is called, If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat by John Ortberg (Zonervan, 2003, Michigan) and explores many aspects of stepping out in faith to walk as Jesus has called us to do, with God and each other.  The study explores our fear, the risks we take, how we perceive failure and also what we do with suffering because when we do take the risks of stepping out of the boat and stepping onto the water, there will be times when we suffer as a result, when we fall into the water, when we fail.  And yet, even though we know there will be suffering, we are still called to do it.  We are still called to step out, take the risks of faith, go through the fire to come out on the other side, purified.  In one of the chapters, John Ortberg looks at what he calls the “resilience factor”.  He says, “People who not only survive but grow through difficult situations have (been found to have) three qualities in common:  1.  They take action, seeking to reassert some command over their destiny rather than viewing themselves as helpless victims.  2.  They have a larger-than usual capacity for what might be called moral courage – for refusing to betray their values.  And 3.  They find meaning and purpose in their suffering.”  In the book, the Beethoven Factor, the new positive psychology of hardiness, happiness, healing and hope, Paul Pearsall says a similar thing, especially in regards to finding meaning and purpose in suffering.  He says that some people who suffer don’t become victims or even survivors, instead they become thrivers, people who actually grow through and because of their pain and suffering.  He lists twelve characteristics of such people, but many of them also have to do with finding meaning and purpose.  Number one on his list is that reasons can be found behind the things that happen to us, though it is up to us to figure out the reason.  Number eight is that thrivers make sense of what has happened or is happening to them.  In other words, both of these studies emphasize again and again the importance in finding meaning and purpose in our suffering if we are to come out stronger, thriving and resilient on the other side.
For much of the world, suffering is pointless.  Our culture tells us the purpose of life is “fun”, or happiness.  And in that context, suffering can have no meaning which I think is why so many people in our culture have such a very difficult time when pain does come.  Where is meaning and purpose in suffering when the goal is just to “be happy”?

But for Christians, it is different.  The Bible never tells us that life is about being happy or comfortable or at ease.  Meaning and purpose have many levels and many layers and therefore we can’t say there is one reason or one purpose behind any individual’s suffering, we can’t determine for anyone else what their suffering is about, or why is it happening or what good God can bring out of it for any one person.  None the less, what we can and do know as people of faith is that God can and does bring purpose, meaning and new life out of suffering if we work with God, if we are open to God’s movement through the pain.  God creates meaning even when we can’t find it.  God brings resurrection out of death.  And for me, today’s passages really touch on the “reasons”, the purpose, the meaning behind all that we suffer.  The passage from Peter says that God uses suffering to “test” us.  I don’t really like the word “test” because for some that can imply that God authors our suffering to see how much we can put up with.  That isn’t my experience of God.  The God I experience does not create our suffering, but does use it to challenge us.  And that is actually the truer meaning behind the Greek word that is here translated as “test”.  It is more accurately translated “challenge” in the sense that God uses our suffering to challenge us to grow, to learn, and to deepen in our connection with God and with life.  I find the same meanings present in the Malachi passage.  Our suffering purifies us, it refines us.  As John says, it also “prunes” us.  Our suffering can lead us to be more godly, but only if we are open to the purpose God has in it, open to being “refined” through the hardships.
As Rick Warren, author of Purpose Given Life said in an interview, “We were made by God and for God, and until you figure that out, life isn't going to make sense…Life is a series of problems: Either you are in one now, you're just coming out of one, or you're getting ready to go into another one.  The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort; God is more interested in making your life holy than (God) is in making your life happy.  We can be reasonably happy here on earth, but that's not the goal of life. The goal is to grow in character, in Christ likeness.”
As we know, this isn’t easy.  The Bible tells us this isn’t easy when it compares the process to the pruning of branches, to the refining of metals.  Growing in character means loving more fully, more deeply, even those we don’t like.  Getting there is hard.  And knowing exactly how to do this, how to love more deeply and fully is a challenge.  So God pushes, God “refines” us and “prunes” us so that we might bear more fruit, so that we might be the pure, refined silver we are meant to be.  That hurts.  It just does.  But that also gives meaning to the suffering that comes.  Again, I’m not saying that God causes our suffering.  What I am saying is that when we do suffer, God can use it and DOES use it to refine us if we are open.  While I don’t believe God purposely wants us to hurt, I do believe God can bring and create meaning through our suffering by allowing it to teach and refine us into more godly people.

I shared this story with you before.  Some women in a Bible study came across this passage from Malachi, “God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”  And so one of the women offered to find out the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible Study. That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work.  She didn't mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining Silver.  As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up.  He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities.  The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot; then she thought again about the verse that says:  'He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.'   She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time.  The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire.  If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.  The woman was silent for a moment.  Then she asked the silversmith, 'How do you know when the silver is fully refined?'
He smiled at her and answered, 'Oh, that's easy -- when I see my image in it.'
   “…When I see my image in it”.
God refines us until we are truly in God’s image.  What an amazing and wondrous act of love on God’s part, to be with us in that suffering to the point where we are truly made in God’s image.  To be in the image of the God of love, is to love.  To be in the image of the God who loved us so much that that God was willing to die for us, is to love each other so much that we are willing to die for each other.  Not easy.  But that is what being in relationship with God pushes us towards, and challenges us to do.
The last time I mentioned this story, Fran approached me afterwards and said something that I also think can help us through times of suffering.  She said, “How hot it must be for God to sit there and refine constantly.”  That is the other part of Jesus on the cross as well.  God is with us in our pain, God is with us in our suffering.  And God is standing alongside in the heat, also suffering but still intent on helping us grow through and beyond our trials.

A Hawaiian elder once said, “God sometimes tears at the fabric of our lives so that we will learn to be better weavers and to show us how to more deeply appreciate being given the chance to weave.  We may not see the final pattern, but we are wise if we try to find new patterns and become more patient and creative weavers.” (Beethoven Factor, xxviii)

And it doesn’t end there.  As the passage from Peter tells us, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you.”  So finally, the other side of suffering comes.  We are refined, we are made new, and in that newness we are brought to healing, to strength and to a stronger place.  Thanks be to God.