Some people, in order to get closer to God, go on retreats. They take time off from their daily work and get away from the daily routine in order to get with God. . . .
One pastor I read about has a small cabin in the mountains of North Carolina. He goes up there once every few months or so to spend a few days in solitude. “If I fail to get up there every so often, I lose the sense of the presence of God,” he writes. “I wake up one day, find myself buried up to my ears in the concerns of everyday life, and find I am falling away from God.”
Another pastor reported that he annually takes two weeks away in the desert of New Mexico. “Sometimes I get so involved in the life of the church, I have no time to be with God.” “So I go out to the desert away from the phone, the computer, the meetings – away from the demands on my time, just to be with God.” Many are called to such times of voluntary disengagement so that we give them names such as a Sabbath, a sabbatical, a retreat, or sanctuary.
But there are likewise times of IN-voluntary disengagement. There are those times in life when the routine of our usual schedules is brought to a forced halt, or even a conclusion. We did not plan for our lives to be interrupted at that moment or in that particular way, but they suddenly and unexpectedly are. And then we are given the opportunity to learn an important truth. In these times of forced, in-voluntary sabbatical, we are made to step back, take stock and reassess.
How many times have I as a pastor heard as I visited a member in the days following a heart attack, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” “Since God let me survive this attack, I’ll never be the same again.” “It woke me up to the reality of my life, to God, to what is really important in life.”
After his yearly physical exam, Tom’s doctor gave him the news. “Well, Tom, your blood pressure is way too high. It has shot up since last time you saw me. You are going to have to start taking some rather heavy doses of medication, plus I’m putting you on a diet. I told you this could happen to you, Tom,” said the doctor.
Tom was shaken and dejected. “This is all a real shock to me,” said Tom. “This is a terrible thing to happen to a guy in his forties.” “I can’t figure out why a thing like this would happen to me – to me!”
“Come on, Tom, you’re not all that surprised are you?” said the doctor. “You have high blood pressure histories on both sides of your family.” “You have been overweight for a long time now, and you seldom exercise.” “Surely, this news was not unexpected!”
“But, why me?” Tom repeatedly muttered to himself. “Why me?”
Then this truthful doctor told it like it was: “Tom, you are a great person. You have already achieved a great deal in your life. You have a great family; you have already made a lot of money. But you are not God; you are an animal; that’s the way God created you. God didn’t intend for any meanness by it; but you were made with limits. So it is time you respected those God-given limits, OR pay the price for it – it’s as simple as that. You are a great person – but you are not God.”
Sometimes those events that we regard as tragedies are really encounters with the truth about who we are and how we are created to be. Lessons as truthful as this are rarely without some pain. So, in our times of pain, perhaps we ought to person is reduced to what is actually there, to the immediately personal – family, geography, body – and begins afresh in love and appreciation.” “The change is the direct consequence of the forced realization of human limits. Pulled out to the limits by a God who is conditioned and confined to the reality of the human condition, the person is surprised not to be living a diminished life, but a deepened life – not a crippled life, but a zestful life. God-intensity begins to replace self-importance.”
Sometimes, in those confined places of life, when we feel trapped with nowhere to escape, we are pushed close to God and to what really matters in life.
For example, it is fascinating to consider how much important biblical material was written by people in jail – by Paul in prison, and by John, the writer of the Book of Revelation while in exile on the Island of Patmos. As we studied this past Wednesday in the Lenten series, the great Psalm Sunday hymn, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” was composed by Theodulf of Orleans around 820 CE while he was imprisoned under house arrest by Louis I. We can be reminded also of that powerful letter penned by Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was in the Birmingham jail, as well as the moving novels written by Alexander Solzhenitzen while he was imprisoned condition ourselves to ask the questions: “What am I supposed to learn from this? What is God teaching me now?”
Eugene Peterson, pastor and author of The Message Bible translation, writes as follows concerning this issue: “Suddenly instead of mindlessly and compulsively pursuing an abstraction – money, or happiness, or the elusive ‘good life’- the
in the Soviet Gulag.
Eugene Peterson says that we also have times of “forced imprisonment.” Many of us endure great losses – unemployment, divorce, or bereavement. Those experiences are like exiles, especially if we are being forced to move out of our accustomed situation to an unaccustomed new place. Not that these circumstances produce new life and good by themselves, but it is amazing how they can be the conditions necessary for starting a new life.
As a pastor, I have constantly been surprised by how often people will report how their situations in life – situations which by all accounts seem to be and are horrible – turn out to be good in retrospect. I’m not sure I always agreed with that old adage that says that “God never gives puts more on us than we can bear.” I’ve seen too many people crushed by the burdens that life sometimes places on their backs. But it is fascinating how often those burdens become opportunities whereby we experience – fresh and new – the power of God.
When her husband of 30 years suddenly died as the result of an undetected aneurism, more than one person in the community remarked, “Sarah will be devastated. I don’t know how she will go on; she was totally dependent on John. This could be her end too.” But it wasn’t. . . .
After John’s death a part of Sarah that no one had seen began to emerge. As it turned out, she was not a weak and dependent person: rather Sarah turned out to be a strong independent person. John’s death, while something she would never have wished or desired, became an occasion whereby the community saw a new Sarah, a very new person altogether.
Jesus said that life comes through death. If a seed falls to the ground and dies, it cannot live. And yet from that seed comes new life. This factor is the mystery, the paradox at the heart of our faith. In this sense, seen through the eyes of the cross, “bad” is “good” because of the transforming power of the holy.
John Calvin spoke of scripture as the lens through which Christians are to look at the world. That in essence is what we are doing when we look at the trials and tribulations of ordinary lives through the “lens” of Jesus and his cross. Jesus not only went to the cross; he also invites us and challenges us to go and take up our crosses as well.
She had a spectacularly active life filled with friends, travel, and important projects. She traveled for a company that has business in a least a dozen countries; so she was always on the go. Then she was struck down by a tragic disability involving the nervous system. In three months she was unable to walk and was completely confined to a wheelchair.
Yet when her pastor went to visit her, he found her to be surprisingly upbeat. Surrounding her chair was a stack of Bibles, commentaries and study aids. “Preacher,” she said, “I’ve never actually had the time to study the Bible – I mean, really study it in depth – until now. Now I’m involved in a systematic study of the scriptures, and I’m loving every moment of it. It’s great to have the chance to learn more about the Bible.”
Leaving the house, the preacher thought, “when I have described her to others as ‘confined’ or ‘struck down’, I wasn’t telling the story of her life. The words “confined” and “struck down” do not really describe her life at all.
It takes time, space, and a place for God to work in our lives. In a way, it’s rather sad to say that so often we have to wait for this in-voluntary retreat, this unwished for, but badly needed Sabbath. Maybe this tells us we should be more intentional about seeking out times, places and opportunities for this practice of seeking God’s presence. I read of a man who, when he lost his high paying job, at last had the opportunity to give himself to the art of bird caving. He was even able to say later, “Getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Which reminds me of a situation I had 25 years ago when I had to fire a church secretary. The position had expanded beyond her capability and the church programs were suffering as the result of her deficits. She was upset at the news, and I was equally upset at having to be the one to tell her. She went to work for her son who owned a water treatment business. Their once-strained relationship began to be healed; and the son realized his mother was starting to have some chronic health issues. Six months later, she came to thank me for firing her, because now finally her son was paying attention to her needs.
Such instances are more than some Pollyanna smile places over life’s hardships. Rather, it is that hopeful, expectant confidence that arises from the Christian’s conviction that no matter where life takes us, God is there. The God who did not shrink even from enduring the shame and suffering on the cross in order to be close to us – that same God will never shrink in standing beside us during our times of cross-bearing as well.
Did we clearly hear today’s passage? “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who is able to save him from death, and he was heard.” “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” And so might we.
Times of suffering are times when Christians are to be disciplined enough to ask, “What is God doing now?” “Is this time of difficulty and tragedy also a time of potential kairos!” For kairos is that time when regular, everyday time – chronos, measured time, becomes God’s time. That is, the time that has come upon me, undesired and uninvited, yet a time when God is setting me apart in order to get closer to me.
Jesus was always voluntarily going into the wilderness to get away from the crowds to be alone with God. Yet, sometimes Jesus was in-voluntarily cast into the wilderness, such as that time right after his baptism when Mark’s Gospel says that the Spirit DROVE him into the wilderness. We began Lent by remembering this time when Jesus was in the wilderness just before he began his ministry. It was a time of testing, of temptation – a time of spiritual discernment and growth. All such times in the wilderness can be times of growth – times of “the bad” becoming “good” because of the leading and the presence of “the holy.”
In today’s passage, some curious Greeks come to see Jesus. In the course of their conversation he speaks of himself and his life as a grain of wheat that falls to earth and dies before it can grow and bear fruit. Here we have an account about a God who wins victories, not through the conventional means of power and glory, but through suffering and death. We Christians are to now live our lives in the light of this story. What the world regards as unabashed tragedy, the complete triumph of evil, Christians have been taught to read as God’s ultimate victory over sin and death.
That means we are to remember this when we are compelled to go into the wilderness: In that wild place, alone and perhaps in fear and pain, we can ask God to guide us. We can also ask God to transform this difficult time into a blessing, an opportunity to have our faith and our relationship to God grow.
For Jesus reveals to us a God who paradoxically wins victories through defeats, and triumphs through suffering. Our victories and our triumphs often come in precisely the same way. Amen.