“Although he was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered…” (Hebrews 5:8)
Suffering; we all know what it’s like. We’ve talked about it before. It’s the pain we feel in life, the sense of dis-ease. The word from Greek is “pathos,” or “pascho,” from which we get our church word, “Paschal.” (Yes, we talked about it last spring too!) In the Hebrew language from which most of the Hebrew Scriptures were originally written the word is “yisurim,” or testing.
We know about suffering and pain and the feeling of being tested. None of us really likes it but then on the other hand we know that suffering is pretty much impossible to escape. To live on earth in human bodies is to experience suffering. But why do we suffer so much? Even when for many of us, things aren’t so bad.
I suggest first we suffer because we know so little about anything, but think we do. In the ancient book of Job we read of a man who suffered intently even though he said he was a very righteous and a God-fearing person. His three friends tried to explain the reason for his suffering; hypocrisy and hidden sins. Of course Job like any of us tried to defend himself and give explanations of why he felt his suffering was undeserved. The scriptures say the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwinds saying;
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determine its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretch the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly being shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4 – 7)
That’s a way of telling him, and us, we really know nothing! The apostle Paul wrote that if anyone thinks he knows anything, he knows nothing compared to that which can be known. No matter how much we study or if we could read all the books of the world it would only be a dot on the pages of the universe’s fragmentation.
Going to schools of higher education can only make the suffering worse if one thinks he learns too much. Seminaries can worsen the pride and arrogance since here one now appears to know a pretty good summary of God and what God wants on earth. Leaving seminary and beginning work in a local parish can quickly raise the suffering levels as many of us discovered.
One minister once suggested the real meaning of the letters given as one progresses in education. The BS degree could be translated as it sounds, lots of it! A graduate with a Masters of Science degree or MS could be translated just “More of the Same!” A further graduate degree resulting in a PhD might be better translated as “Piled Higher and Deeper!” Yes, education is important, but it’s only a tiny fraction of what can be known. To forget that and to live as if you really know can cause great suffering and pain to oneself and those around him or her. I like to often think of education as a process revealing to us how much we don’t yet know.
Another cause of deeper suffering and pain is the obtaining a special relationship or honored position among your peers. We see this in the gospel of Mark when the disciple brothers James and John said to Jesus, “Please grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Somehow they felt they would experience less suffering after Jesus left earth if they could get a higher position of religious authority. Of course Jesus responded saying that this wasn’t for him to decide anyway and the best thing they could do was to seek not to be served but to serve others in humble obedience.
Being the big boss man or woman or thinking you have married the special perfect person never guarantees absence of suffering; usually it just increases it; trust me! Being ordained as a divine teacher of God as one of the Teaching Elders does not lessen suffering but usually increases it. Marrying “high and well” does not guarantee lack of suffering nor does living in a better neighborhood than most others. These can actually cause more frustration and deeper pain because of their disillusionment.
At the Pearly Gates, as the story goes shared by my friend, David Pliss, St. Peter greeted a minister and a politician to give them their room assignments. Looking at the minister he said, “Reverend, here are the keys to one of our nicest efficiency units!” The minister smiled in acceptance but frankly was sort of disappointed. Then turning to the politician St. Peter said, “And for you, Senator, the keys to our finest penthouse suite! Five star rating!” “That’s unfair!” cried the minister. “Listen,” said Saint Peter, “ministers are a dime a dozen appear around here, but this is the first politician we’ve seen in a very long time!” And so it is the first shall be last in the last shall be first!
Deep suffering and despair are also caused by the belief that we are our bodies, or what some call our temporary ego selves. In our body the ego self identifications are constantly changing and moving toward dissolution, disease, death and dust. Regardless of what we are doing or drinking or enjoying there always lurks the elephant in the room reminding us “Thou art dust to dust thou shall return.” Yes we seek to deny our demise with good exercise and good eating, getting facials for ourselves and even for our deceased loved ones but inside we all know as Longfellow wrote; we succumb to the grim reaper! We visit funeral homes for wakes of loved ones and looking at them laid out in luxurious “eternal beds” we say, “Oh, he looks just wonderful!” But we have to know, “He’s dead! He’s on his way back to the ground or to the crematorium for the ash crisper!”
We even have the delusional tendency in our minds to use our frail mortal bodies as bargaining tools with God. We tend to think even or pain is sort of “special.”
“Have mercy on us all Lord,” we cry; “Look at the pain I’m enduring, look at all the bad luck I’ve had, at how much I’ve had to suffer!”
But it’s no use since we are only in a temporary dwelling called body and these live in temporary housing surrounded by plastic, wood and metal. And so we suffer.
We suffer failing to realize that coming here to earth in bodies was itself an attack on God. In the book, “A Course in Miracles”, it describes the creation of the world and our part in it as an attack upon God. We like to say, “Oh look what I have done! I helped create a baby, I have created a family, I have created wealth, and we have created great cities!” Yes, look what we have done but it is all mortal and as the Hebrew writer of Wisdom says it’s just vanity of vanities, and sufferings here which have no end! I remember the story when the multimillionaire founder of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford died, and somebody asked “How much did he take with him?” And the answer came, “Nothing!”
So what is the purpose in all this vanity of vanities and endless delusions? The Hebrew writer said although Jesus was a Son, He learned obedience through what he suffered.” The Greek Word for obedience, hupakuo,means “to hear.” Jesus as the Son of God and you and I as the Sons and daughters of God, can, through our sufferings, learn to listen and find the Great Spirit, the great Voice, Heart, Soul, and Mind. (You fill in your favorite name!)
The pounding of suffering in our daily lives can then have a very useful purpose if it teaches us this lesson of letting go of our illusions and following Spirit. We can learn to give up our attachments to mortality which is all around us and walk more lightly with more humor.
This is a summary of the second and third steps of the Buddhist eightfold path. The first step is simply the awareness that suffering on this planet is universal, it is undeniable. The second step is that suffering is caused by our attachment to that which is mortal and ephemeral. And the third step teaches freedom is found through letting go and nonattachment to mortality. And then those last four through eight steps give guidelines for living the daily middle way of finding peace in the midst of so much suffering.
Can we learn obedience by listening in our sufferings for the sacred Voice of Spirit? Can we become attentive to sacred Scriptures which remind us of this, when lying down and when rising up? John Calvin, the patriarch of Reformed theology, wrote seven times each day the seeker ought to pause and listen in prayer for the Voice. It may have been based on the seventh century method of St. Benedict who created which later became called the Daily Office of Prayer. Upon arising, in midmorning, at noon, at mid afternoon, and evening, before sleep, and during the night we can pause to meditate and listen.
We learn by such mind training, understandings and prayer that we are really not these mortal bodies but are part of that Great Spirit, Who created us as spirit, the one whom we call God, Jesus, Spirit, Lord, Buddha, or Baha-luah! We discover we never really left our home in heaven, and while we’re on this little foray in form and mortality our Spirits never left their Source.
The story goes (another David Pliss story!) how a man dies and goes to heaven and of course, St. Peter greets him at the Pearly Gates and says; “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven so tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I’ll give you a certain number of points for each item depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you’re in.” “Okay,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and I never cheated even in my heart.” “That’s wonderful!” Says St. Peter, “that’s certainly worth three points.” “Three points?” The man questioned. But he went on saying, “Well, I attended church all my life, supported its ministry with my tithes and service”. “Terrific!” Said St. Peter, “that’s certainly worth another point.” “One point? Golly. “Well how about this? I started a soup kitchen in my own city and I work in the shelter for homeless veterans.” “Fantastic, that’s good for two more points, “St. Peter says. “Two points!!” “Don’t be discouraged St. Peter said, so far you’re doing much better than most candidates. But now having nothing left to offer the man cried out, “At this rate the only way I’ll ever going to get into heaven is by the grace of God!” “Ah, St. Peter says, “come on in!” And so it is.
Talk summary offered at the First Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, Sunday, October 20, 2012.