To Suffer

“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs.   They think faith is a big electric blanket when of course it is the cross.” Flannery O’Connor

      Jim Stigler, a UCLA psychology professor who studies teaching and learning around the world recounted a poignant moment in his research in a 4th grade classroom in Japan. Stigler watched as the teacher invited a student who was having a particularly difficult time to come up to the chalkboard to put his work on the board for the whole class to see.  This was interesting to him because in American classrooms, the teacher would have asked the best student up front.  The student came up to the board and started drawing and every few minutes the teacher would ask the class if he had it right and the class would shake their heads “no”. Stigler noticed that he himself was perspiring and becoming anxious that the kid was going to burst into tears.  But it never happened. By the end of the class, the student continued to work at it until finally the teacher asked the class if he’d gotten it right and the class broke out into applause.  The kid smiled and sat down, proud of himself.  Stigler and other researchers have noted differences between education in the East and the West.  In the West, we generally tend to believe that intelligence and success in the classroom is something inside of us.  We have “gifted and talented” programs–we either have it or we don’t.  Struggle is a weakness, a sign of a lack of something innate.  But in Eastern cultures, struggle is seen as an integral part of the learning process.  They’ve been taught that suffering can be a good thing.  It shows they have the emotional resolve to persist through the struggle.

      Last week at our Wednesday night community Bible study, the scripture passage we read from was John 20. Jesus revealed himself to the disciples after his resurrection.  I was fixated on the phrase, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”  The disciples wanted to follow Jesus, that’s for sure.  They thought they knew what they were getting into.  They thought he was the Messiah, the Son of God.  They wanted a piece of the glory.  But then Jesus started talking about suffering, and Peter wouldn’t hear of it.  Then Jesus got arrested, and they kept their distance.  And then he got killed, and they abandoned him.  This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go in their minds.  God doesn’t suffer.  God is a winner, not a loser.  And their supposed Messiah lost.  This wasn’t what they’d signed up for.  So they locked the door in fear, hoping to escape the same fate of their master and friend.

      Last week I locked myself in the house like a scared disciple.  Earlier that day I’d shared with a group some scripture verses that spoke about God’s concern for the immigrant and the possible implications it might have for us today.  I knew that this group might not be particularly sympathetic to the issue, but I felt that coming to serve in an immigrant neighborhood might give me some kind of permission to help them consider ways of understanding God and the “other” in ways they may not have considered before.  I was wrong.  I came home feeling pretty beat up.  

      Just then I looked out the window and saw the owner who had purchased the house across the street from us. He bought it just 3 days before we were going to submit an offer on behalf of our friend, Armando.  Weeks earlier, I had met with the owner and offered him $5k over his $18k closing price.  He was a super-nice guy from a small town in Iowa.  Moreover, he was a Cyclone!  I felt good about our prospects.  He declined our offer and said he’d purchased it as a long-term investment and countered with a lease-to-own offer that would have accrued $130k in payments over 15 years.  I knew I needed to talk to him. I didn’t want to give up both for Armando’s sake and to help a really nice guy from Iowa realize what it means to be nice in markets and contracts too.   

      Yet at the same time, I didn’t want to speak up. I didn’t have to speak up.  By the rules of the market, Armando couldn’t come up with the money.  Sure, he might be more deserving, but that’s not the way it works.  He missed his shot. Game over. But more than anything, I didn’t want to face the owner with this because just as Jesus found out preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, sometimes proclaiming God’s good news to the poor and marginalized seems like bad news to those of us who are rich and comfortable.  And my desire to be liked and to be accepted is often greater than my desire to witness to God’s kingdom and to stand alongside my friends who don’t share those privileges.  I’d already felt an icy rejection once that day, I didn’t want to suffer humiliation again.  I was afraid.

      The logic of my culture tells me to just take the path of least resistance.  Find the quickest escape route from pain. Don’t speak up. Just be nice. Don’t rock the boat. You’ll just end up alienating people you love.  This logic has such a strong pull on me.  Too often the church is simply a hollow, angelic echo of the same.  We can become a refuge that merely serves to baptize the status quo.  Our prayers become about keeping so and so safe, providing  comfort, asking for hedges of protection and making life easier for those we love.  When we do that, we act like the researcher who just wants to rescue the 4th grader from struggle, from public humiliation, and from tears.  You shouldn’t have to struggle.  You don’t need to suffer.  It was right then that I realized how badly I needed the church.  But I needed a church who prayed a different kind of prayer–not one that would rescue and keep me from that discomfort, but one like that of my friend, Isaac, who said he now prays that God would give strength to endure, courage in the face of fear, patience to not bail out at a critical juncture, and resolve in the face of opposition.  

      The first thing Jesus told his scared disciples, hunkered up behind locked doors was, “Peace be with you.”  Peace.  Don’t be afraid.  You’re not alone.  I am with you.  And the very next words are, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  As the Father has sent me with a message of such hope and such aching beauty that only those with nothing to lose dare to accept, so I send you.  I send you into a world that chooses to secure its future on its own, that fiercely protects and will quite literally kill to protect its interests.  Of course you’re scared.  Of course you don’t want to speak up.  Of course you don’t want to suffer.  Of course you don’t feel like you have those gifts and you’ll never have it in you.  But take heart, I am with you.  Jesus was teaching them and us the way of the cross–not so that they or we might earn anything–but rather that we might learn that it is the only path to dismantling the powers of death and the only way to witness the power of the resurrection.  

      The very next day I got a taste of it.  The owner of the house across the street gave us an offer even lower than we’d first asked–a more than $100k change from his last!  It doesn’t happen every time.  More often than not, participating in the sufferings of Christ with others feels fruitless.  Pointless.  A bit like death.  But every now and then Easter breaks through.

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