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 A Sermon Preached by Rev. Gregory Hall at Clarence Presbyterian 
on February 17, 2019.

MAKING SENSE OF THE NEGATIVE

But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.    I Peter 4:13


        Last fall we focused on barriers to faith.  Barriers to faith are ideas or experiences that keep us from faith.  One October Sunday, Judith explored how the experience of evil can prevent many people from believing in a loving God.  

Today we continue our series on what we call the “Summons to Faith.”  These are common human experiences that can help draw us towards faith in God.  What is interesting is that some of those things which prevent some people from believing in God, can for other people serve as a path to the presence of the divine.

For some people the hard bumps in life turn them away from God, and for others these negative experiences can draw them to Jesus.  We begin today with a very challenging quote.

“The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.”

These words were found scribbled in the note book of Simone Weil after her death in 1943 at the age of thirty-four.  These words lay out for us how negative experiences can lead us to know God.  The road is long and has many stops along the way.  There are many lessons for us to learn as we make our way towards God through negative experiences which may even include suffering.

The first step on the journey is to learn that negative experiences are part of human existence.  One of the huge best sellers in the last forty years was Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. This book on spiritual growth begins with the wonderful sentence Life is Difficult.   

        Peck reminds us that one of the four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that Life is Suffering. The Buddha affirmed that suffering is not exceptional but rather a normal part of every human’s existence.   When we read the Psalms we are reminded again and again of the pain that people experience in life.  So many of the Psalms were written as a response to difficult experiences of individuals or the people of Israel.

In our day we need to be reminded of this truth.  For much of our lives we are led to believe that we should insulated from suffering-the improvements in public health, the development of pain medications-the safety procedures that reduce so many accidents on highways and the workplace-have made us sometimes believe that tragedy is not part of life.

Thus when a major tragedy such as the plane crash in Clarence Center, whose tenth anniversary was observed this week, occurs we are overwhelmed.  We find it hard to accept that life can deal these blows.  We question the very meaning life.

        Yet in the Gospels Jesus affirms that life means some suffering.  He reminds us that there is pain and suffering in the world.  When we have lived any number of years, we know that this is true.  We know that we are material beings.  We are made a part of the physical order.  We are subject to the laws of nature.  We are subject to microbes and viruses, to aging, and to death.  We encounter realities that we cannot always avoid.

Suffering teaches us that we are all human beings.  We are part of nature and suffering is part of life.

The second stop on the route of suffering is to learn that Christianity does not promise to save us from all suffering.  That is what Weil meant when she wrote, "the extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering."

To be honest, it should be pointed out that there is a tension found in the Bible.  In the Old Testament, the Book of Deuteronomy would seem to promise that if you are good, God will protect you from all evil and if you are bad you will be punished. This simple formula led many to think that wealth was an indication of goodness, and poverty signified evil.

        Many contemporaries of Jesus held this understanding of the faith.  In the Gospels we read the story of the man born blind who encounters Jesus.  Many people asked Jesus, “Who sinned the man or his parents?”  The people thought that someone had to be at fault.   

        In the Gospels Jesus dispels this simplistic understanding when he said, “for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Jesus is reminding us that the natural world is not ordered to bless those who are good and punish those who are bad.  The good suffer and prosper along with the bad.

        There are many Christians who have not heard this message of our Lord.  There are many people who believe in what I would call a Rogers’ Center Christianity.  These people seem to believe that our faith in Christ puts us in the same situation as fans watching a baseball game in Toronto.  If life is going well, all is sunny, beautiful and warm, then God allows us to experience life as it is.  But, if storm clouds gather and sickness and pain threaten, God will then close the dome and protect us from real life and all its problems.

        My friends, that is not the message of Jesus.  We do not suffer because we do not have enough faith.  We do not get cancer because we are bad people.  We do not mourn the loss of a child because we lack faith.   The people who were on flight 3407 were not all bad people.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust equally.

“The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.”

        Weil reminds us that God uses suffering to instruct us.  The third stop on the route of suffering is learning to overcome our egocentricity.  When things are going well for us, it can seem that we are the center of all creation.  Most of the time, you and I view the world only from our perspective.  We see other people only as they relate to us.  We value others by how they meet our needs.

        Negative experiences can throw us off-center.  When we experience illness, accidents, tragedy, divorce or loss how do we react?  Most of the time we ask questions,

        Why did this happen to me?

        What did I do wrong?

        Why did this happen to my loved one and not me?

        Sometimes when we suffer adversity we become mute with depression.  At other times we become angry with those around us and with God.  These are just some of our automatic human reactions to suffering.

        These automatic responses can be an occasion to ponder, “Why do I think that good and evil are parceled out according to some scheme of merit, when the book of Job so clearly teaches the opposite and most of all when Jesus himself had to suffer.”  This kind of reflection may lead us to see more clearly something we may already know: as material beings, as pieces of matter we are vulnerable to injury, illness and decay.  Suffering reminds us of our status in the universe.  It helps us come to terms with the hard fact that we are not the center of all things.  The world is not ordered to suit us as individuals. You and I are dependant beings.

        When we have come to terms with the truth of our own dependence, suffering can lead us to identify with the suffering of others.  I have been in a book group for thirty-five years.  One of my friends in the group is Ray Lindquist.  He is not only a minister but also a poet.  He wrote the following poem after his eldest daughter experienced a serious illness.

Waiting for a lab report,
Dependent on mysterious authorities,
Gazing at my daughter in hospital,
Her mother and I sharing a hard fellowship,
I know a timeless, tribe less circumstance:
I drive to the hospital in an eternal procession,
I eat in the snack bar among the whole human race;
My tears began 100,000 years ago
And will never stop.

        In this poem Ray moves from his own grief and his own concern to his inclusion in the grief of the whole world.  He is able to see his daughter’s illness, as well as his own pain, as part and parcel of the vulnerability of the whole human race.  His tears are part of all the tears ever shed.  His drive to the hospital in Batavia was not merely his own journey, but part of an “eternal procession”; the meal in the snack bar is eaten in the company of the whole human race.  It is no accident that Ray called his poem Common Life, as it has to do with common human suffering.  His experience of his own daughter’s suffering enabled him to identify with others.

        We know this to be true.  Those who have suffered much often have a great understanding of the pain of others.  When we have even small negative experiences, God can use it to grant us a window to gain empathy with others.  Suffering can increase our capacity to love others.  This is a supernatural use for suffering.

        The final stop on experiencing the negative is Jesus.  Suffering can serve to make the presence of the Risen Christ real to us.  Our Lord who suffered so deeply during his passion promises to meet us in our suffering.

        Anne Lamott is a writer who was born in San Francisco in 1954.  She was raised in a very disordered family that fell apart when she was a child.  As she grew into adulthood she took up many destructive habits-alcohol and drugs became a normal part of her life.  The experience of depression became a regular companion.

        Life only got worse when she found herself pregnant by a married man.  In desperation she had the pregnancy terminated.  This drove her ever deeper into depression.  She tells us:

        I stayed home, and smoked dope, and got drunk, and tried to write a little. On the seventh night, though, very drunk and just about to take a sleeping pill, I discovered that I was bleeding heavily. It did not stop over the next hour. I thought I should call a doctor, but I was so disgusted that I had gotten so drunk one week after an abortion that I just couldn’t wake someone up and ask for help. Several hours later I got in bed, shaky and sad. After awhile, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after awhile, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

        And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends. I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

        I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with. 

        Finally, I fell asleep and in the morning, he was gone.

        The experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my house door whenever I entered or left.

        And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hung-over that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.

        I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my house, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “[Okay,]. I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.” So this is my beautiful moment of conversion.

        To one who did not even want it, negative experiences became the pathway to the Risen Christ. For the central mystery of our faith involves the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord.  When we share in suffering, in someway we cannot fathom, we share in the suffering of Jesus.

        When we experience negative things, when we face suffering in our lives, may we learn from it.  May it teach us compassion for others.  May we say “Yes Jesus” and allow our suffering to become a route into the very presence of the one who suffered and died for us.