Open Spaces

Thursdays I go to the local coffee shop to finish my research/reading for Thursday afternoon Bible study (currently working through the Gospel of John).  This is the same coffee shop I stop at on Sunday mornings prior to final prep for worship.  Over the last five years I’ve gotten to know some people there, at least at a nominal level.  They know what I do, and at times that opens doors for conversation.

But as an introvert, I don’t expect those conversations.  I expect that people are doing their own thing and are preoccupied.  While I’m always interested and curious to talk with people, I’m bad at initiating.  But there are days when simply being there is enough.

The owner came over to talk with me first this morning.  He’s shared a little about himself and his life over the past few years.  As I arrived this morning I noticed him getting a hug from someone outside, but assumed it was just a friendly conversation.  It wasn’t.  His young daughter passed away two weeks ago.  He wanted to let me know because I was a regular and, while we didn’t talk extensively, he knew that I cared, that I dealt with deep things in life.  I don’t think he would describe himself as Christian, but rather very spiritual.  I asked if I could pray for him and he agreed, and I was able to pray for his healing and specifically give thanks for victory over death in Jesus.

A few moments later I spotted a young man who worked at the coffee shop from time to time.  We had last talked in the fall, as he was preparing to join a special deep-sea project.  Turns out he was back in town briefly, en route south for sailing classes while the project was temporarily stalled due to specialized hardware needs.  Since he’s spiritually minded (strong Buddhist influences) we got into deeper water (haha) pretty quickly.  He asked what I was preaching on Sunday – Luke 13:1-5. Jesus clarifies a little to his disciples the nature of human suffering.  This was the jumping off point for our discussion.  He was familiar with the story of Job and drew a correlation to that pretty quickly.  He wanted clarification on the overall Biblical teaching on suffering and Job served as a good example, a further explanation, as it were, of Jesus’ brief teaching in Luke 13.

While we locate sin and our rebellious state against God as the source of all suffering, we cannot peer too deeply into this.  It isn’t as though bad people suffer and good people don’t – I presume that most people’s life experience bears this out to some degree.  But that doesn’t keep us from veering down that road from time to time.  When we hear of someone else’s misfortune, how easy is it for us to quickly come to a conclusion as to why they are suffering – they did this wrong, they lived in the wrong place, the didn’t pay attention to this, that, or the other.  Sometimes we draw comfort, knowing some sinful detail or assumption about their life and finding relief that we haven’t done that sort of thing, as though that will somehow protect us from the difficulties of life.  We are always looking for ways to feel safer and comfortable, and if we can identify why others suffer, we suspect that we will somehow be able to avoid similar suffering.

Jesus’ words emphasize repentance, a turning away from ourselves and our sin and, implicitly, a turning towards him and the forgiveness that his death and resurrection will make possible to us.  It is repentance that transforms the suffering of this world.  It does not remove it – not yet, not until Christ’s return.  But his resurrection and the promise that in baptism and faith we are united with Jesus in his death and resurrection gives us hope that the suffering of this world and ultimately our own death are not the last words pronounced over us.  We are not defined by the suffering we endure, but rather by the life and light we bear within us, and that on the day of our Lord’s return will be fully revealed not just to others but to ourselves as well.

As such, we don’t deny suffering.  When I spoke with the owner, some of the things he said about how he was processing his daughter’s death veered in that direction, an attempt to deny suffering as such and recast it as something good, as something containing the seeds of an even greater joy that will justify the suffering.  Suffering is bad, Biblically.  It is the result of sinfulness on the macro scale, not the micro (as Jesus stresses in Luke 13).  I can empathize and enter (in a limited sense) into his suffering, recognizing and declaring it as such, declaring death as something bad and wrong and contrary to God’s desire for his creation.  This acknowledgement drives me towards the cross and the empty tomb for hope.

Can God work good out of suffering?  Of course!  But that does not change the suffering into something good.  It is a reminder that nothing is beyond God’s power or control, and while we can’t peer behind the curtain to know the intricacies of how and why He does what He does or allows what He allows, we can also expect that in the midst of the suffering a broken and sinful creation fosters, God is there as well.  Romans 5 and Romans 8 are very helpful in this respect.

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