I had a tough night at work the other night. It turns out that the store is cutting back even more on hours. It's hard enough trying to make ends meet on what I make already. Now it will be a little tougher.
Let me explain my situation a bit. I'm a teacher. At least I was...and I hope to be again. I was denied tenure at my last school. It's tough enough trying to find any decent job in the current economy, let alone a teaching position. The one school where I had the best shot for employment is actually laying off staff. So now I work at a grocery store until I can find a new gig. Such is life sometimes.
Now I don't want anyone to think that I am whining about my current circumstances, because I'm not. I have two good friends who are not only unemployed, but also homeless...and one of them has a wife & three kids. It's painful and humbling for grown men to find themselves in such a situation. So I am thankful for what I have. However, I desperately want to get back in the classroom. I miss the students. I miss brainstorming with the other teachers. I simply miss the learning environment. At my core I am a teacher. It is what I was meant to be. I just wish that I could find the opportunity to be live that out. These are the times that cause you to really wait upon the Lord and to look for His provision.
The place where I go to worship on Sunday is called Living Waters. The Pastor there is actually my old Youth Pastor from way back in High School. Now I have to confess that I'm a little wary of most Pastors. I've been burned by enough "Christians" that I always have a rational sense of skepticism when I am around them. Most of the guys you see on the TV make me want to pull an "Elvis" and shoot the television. It's even worse when they start talking about money, and how God will make you rich if you give it to them. (For some reason, a Southern accent on a preacher just makes me itch all over.)
However, Pastor Scott is the real deal. He is the most honest Pastor that I have ever listened to. He is quite open with his own issues, and I find that so refreshing. I think that transparency in a Believer, especially a Pastor, is the best way to keep them out of trouble. I've asked around about Pastor Scott and apparently he has earned quite a reputation for Mercy in his preaching. That's a fairly rare quality these days. Pastor Scott is a very cool guy if you ask my opinion.
(A side note: If anyone from Living Waters ever reads this post, take a wild guess at what Pastor Scott's nick-name was when he was young? Putt-putt little Butt. HA!)
Pastor Scott has been preaching through Paul's letter to the church in Philippi for many weeks now. He has pointed out what a happy letter it is. It's just crammed full of joy. Which is strange if you know the context under which it was written. You see, Paul the Apostle was in prison in Rome waiting on his appeal to Caesar. The emperor at the time was Nero. Nero was a pervert who liked little boys, and dressing up like a gladiator when addressing the Senate. (Which would be the equivalent to President Obama dressing in drag for the State of the Union address. Which would be entertaining, but...) Paul probably thought his odds were not the best with a guy like Nero being his judge.
Paul got off the charges this time around, but he didn't know it would happen while he was writing the letter. Still, if you read the letter all the way through you find that it really is a happy letter. Try reading through it a couple of times and circle all the words like "Rejoice & Joy." (Yes, it is OK to write in your Bible. The paper & ink isn't sacred, just what they say) If you do this, you just might be surprised.
At one point, early in the letter, Paul says the following: "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him." I have a copy of the Bible called "The Message," written by Eugene Peterson. It's his translation of the Bible into contemporary English. He translates that passage this way, "There's far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There is also suffering for him. And suffering is as much a gift as trusting."
Hhhmmm. Suffering is a gift? Suffering IS a gift.
Later, towards the end of the letter, Paul writes this: "I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,...I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings..."
So here is a guy that seems to have been beaten up in almost every town he preached the Gospel. For all he knew, he may have been sentenced to having his head chopped off. (Paul was a Roman citizen, so apparently that was the common form of execution for them. They saved those crucifixions for non-citizens, like Pete & Jesus.) Paul didn't know what his fate would be and yet, he really is in a great mood while writing to his friends. Rather counterintuitive, don't know think?
Now, here in America there are preachers who tell you that you can have your Best Life Now, that there are 8 Steps to the Life you Want, or that there is a Winner's Way. They will tell you that if you follow Jesus, then life will just be one big happy trail for you. All you have to do is have faith and you will get everything you possibly want, with no financial, physical or emotional struggles what so ever...and no ache either. (This is usually followed with a request, or should I say an Insistence, that you demonstrate your faith by giving them a substantial amount of money.) The best part is that if you DON'T get all of the goodies, it's your own darn fault because you lack faith.
Paul must have been a terrible Christian. Seriously, he obviously had no faith in Jesus at all! He gets his butt beat everywhere he goes. He sure isn't making much of a living. Eventually, he does end up getting the Roman hair cut. ("A little below the collar, please") A complete lack of faith, if you ask me. Steven, too, all he did was lay around getting stoned. And don't even get me started about Peter! Crucified upside down. Loser!
Suffering as a gift. Suffering as a way to identify with Jesus.
Suffering as a way of being one with other Believers. Hhhmm.
A few weeks back I went to listen to Rob Bell speak at the State Theater in downtown Minneapolis. I was really excited because a few of my former students were coming with me. Bell's tour was called "Drops Like Stars," and it was all about how suffering can bring creativity and union to those who suffer.
At one point in the show, Bell points out that there are cards & pencils spread through out the seats. He asks everyone to write on the cards "I know how you feel." He then spoke about how the incarnation of Jesus was God's way of identifying with human suffering. In this way, God is actually able to say to humans that "I know how you feel." Bell then began to ask a series of questions to the audience. The first one was, "If anyone here has ever been directly affected by the death of a loved one by cancer, please raise your card." I would guess that about 90% of the audience raised their cards. Bell then told us to give our card to someone we don't know. He kept asking questions like these with the same instructions. All of the questions were about awful ways that people can suffer. Yet, all of us who were passing the cards around with the phrase "I know how you feel" written on them were smiling and laughing. Strange, huh?
Bell went on to point out that if a total bleeding-heart leftwinger, and a mighty tighty righty, have both suffered in a similar way, then they both have an intimate and immediate connection to, and understanding of each other that others do not share, regardless of politics. This is true! Suffering can create intimacy. It creates a bond regardless of what our other experiences are. That was why everyone was smiling and laughing as we were passing the cards around. We certainly were NOT happy about the various tragedies we had to experience. But we were very happy about realizing that there is a community out there that knows how we feel.
Last Sunday, as Scott was preaching he said a few things that almost made me raise my hand and ask a question in the middle of the service. (You can do that at Living Waters. Pastor Scott wants everyone to participate. That's how the church behaved for the first three centuries until the emperor Constantine legalized...and then paganized it.) ANYWAY, I didn't do it because Scott was on a roll...and that's always fun to listen to.
When Paul used the phrase, "I want to KNOW Christ," was he using the word "know" in the same way that the Old Testament used it? It was often used as a sexual term, as in a man "Knowing" his wife. Of course Paul was writing in Greek, and the O.T. was written in Hebrew, but still I wondered if it applied. Now I am in no way saying that Paul meant anything sexual about using that phrase, but that act is the most intimate thing that two humans can share. When I read Paul's letters I am always struck by how much he ran after Jesus, always wanting to be as close as possible to him. Paul wanted to have as intimate a relationship with Jesus as he could possibly have.
The other thing that Scott said that struck me was when he quoted Jesus on the cross screaming out "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" Was Jesus surprised? Had he not seen that coming? We know that Jesus voluntarily limited himself when in human form. He admitted to the disciples that he limited his knowledge of all things. So, WAS he actually taken by surprise when the Father turned His back on him?
After worship we had a proper communion service at a member's house. No, not wine and bread. That's a man made ritual. We had a POT LUCK! That's pretty much exactly how it worked in the early church. (You would think that a proper communion service would come completely natural to any Believer living in Minnesota. Minnesotans are all about pot lucks...and sweet corn.) So I talked with Scott about my questions.
Scott said something that really hit me hard. He said that he thought Jesus probably knew what was coming when he was on that cross, but that his having been a part of the relational intimacy of the trinity for all of eternity, Jesus had never experienced any type of separation from the Father and the Holy Spirit before. It was that sensation and experience of being separated from his Father that would have come as a total and horrifying shock to Jesus. No sin can exist in the presence of the Father, and Jesus took ALL of the sins of the world upon himself when he went up on the cross. So Abba had no choice but to separate Himself from Jesus. The very experience of that separation, when the Father "Abba" turned His back on Jesus and left him, must have been horribly painful beyond any & all human comprehension.
You see, for a long time I have held a bit of a grudge against God...especially when things aren't going my way. I would mutter "Sure. I know you died on the cross, and it was painful. But still, you knew full well that you were going to come back from the dead in 3 days." But it wasn't until that moment that it dawned on me that Jesus really and truly does have a deeper sense of what it is to suffer than I will ever have.
"I know how you feel!"
When I was going to Bethel Seminary I ran into one of the former deans of the seminary. Carl H. Lundquist had retired a few years before. He was the man responsible for moving Bethel College and Seminary from it's old stomping grounds across from the State Fair to it's current digs in Arden Hills. He was suffering from some form of melanoma and was going to die with in a few months. Apparently, he had been suffering with this disease for well over a year. When I saw him at the seminary, it was not a pretty picture. With out meaning to be flippant, I can only describe him as looking like one of those tomatoes that has been on the vine for way to long. He was swollen and red, and apparently in great pain.
Would you like to know how he felt about his circumstances?
He told people that it was a blessing and a privilege to be dying of that disease. He said that it was a blessing because it gave him the briefest glimpse of what it must have been like to suffer the way that Jesus did. I'm not sure that I could say such a thing if I were in the same situation.
"For it has been GRANTED (Gifted) to you
on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him,
but also to suffer for him."
So suffering is a gift. It certainly isn't a pleasant one. It's not the type of package you want to find under the christmas tree from Grandma Ella. But it would appear from the Bible that it is something that is necessary to grow closer to Jesus. And it can be something beautiful too. At least in what can be created out of the suffering. So, how can you have Your Best Life Now, how can you be on the Winner's Way unless you acknowledge the necessity of suffering from time to time? Pain, frustration and suffering is as natural a part of the flawed human condition as breathing. This life is simply NOT a destination to feel "Good" about. This life is a journey, and the journey IS the destination.
I want so badly to be back in a classroom. I would like to be able to make ends meet financially, and not worry about a paycheck. My friends would like a decent job and a place of their own to live. Some other friends of mine would like to have their beautiful little boy back from that damn tumor that took his life. Another friend of mine would like to have his mental health to be healed because it hurts so much. But this is where we are at at the moment. The world is flawed, and so are we. This IS life. To deny it is to become a complete liar.
I suppose that you only learn patience by having to wait. Apparently, Abba really, really, really wants me to learn ALL about patience. I think I can trust Him though. It's not always easy, and I am a weak man in many, many ways. Still, at least the God that I know can take my face in His very gentle hands, look me right in the eyes, smile at me and say, "I know how you feel."