Thursday, January 1, 2009

"All is quiet on New Year's Day . . ."

So it begins.

Today's topic, boys and girls, is the "cup of suffering" and what it means to drink of it.  Perhaps before I begin I should issue a disclaimer more in keeping with the season, perhaps a gratitude list of sorts for the goodness of this past year, or at least an acknowledgement that I'm glad our household has been spared (so far) much of the hardships the rest of this country faces, but that's assumed already, and I have limited time to write.  So assume the gratitude is there and we'll move on.

Been thinking about how we're all called to take up the daily cross, count the cost of what it means to be a disciple, and keep our eyes on eternal things rather than get completely enmeshed in these passing troubles.  Wear the world "like a loose cloak" and all that, rather than a straight-jacket.  There was a time as a new believer, or perhaps all my life out of some misplaced guilt, that I would have insisted I have no real suffering in my life, since materially and in almost any externally apparent way things are so better-than-average (demographically . . .) for my clan.  

But now I'm a little more honest, or at least more beaten down, and I can admit that "suffering" of any sort - emotional, physical, intellectual, or other - feels real enough when it strikes, and distinctions about whether or not a critical mass of society would acknowledge it as valid makes no difference to the real and crippling effects one experiences.  Or the surprising blessings.  Because on the flip side of loneliness, pain, sadness, fear, failure, and disappointment, there are times for introspection, refining, rest, peace, and getting to the heart of what we claim we believe.  

I know, the cynic in me wants to say that things like perspective, humility, and moderation are just the consolations of a life winding down, or of watching most of your younger self's dreams flame out or fail miserably.  But enough of the pessimist.  Even if that voice is true, it's only half the story. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control . .  those ring a bell, anybody?  They're the "fruits of the Spirit" Paul exhorts us towards, or rather, they're the promised gifts of living a life of true discipleship.  Like somebody said on the radio the other day, when this older woman meets somebody for the first time and they immediately tell her "I'm a Christian," she thinks already?!  How'd you get there? I've been trying all my life to be one . . .


So, I haven't made much headway with this cup of suffering thing.  I suspect, as always, it's probably not what we think.  First, it was Jesus speaking explicitly of his own actions when he said he was willingly drinking of that particular cup (crucifixion and death, and all the Passion in between).  Then, when he told us we would have to take up our crosses daily, anyone I know would give a very wide, loose, individualized interpretation of that "cross." Besides the obvious, awful suffering of many in the world for the Gospel (the acknowledged and unacknowledged martyrs ~ there's a rumor in Christian circles that there are more people dying in the world today because of proclaiming Jesus than there were in the first Century, but I don't know if that's fact.  It's certainly believable in terms of sheer numbers of the persecuted church in some parts of the world) there are the limitless, inexpressible sacrifices we daily, semi-willingly make.

I don't mean simply that the question of taking up suffering seems counter-intuitive, which of course the gospels so often are.  The why part is answered pretty clearly for any believer, and its motive quite different from the ascetic renunciation of other faith traditions - there's no aspiring to self-purification or perfection here, but instead a million little actions and individual decisions stemming from, at core, being His.  Being so consumed with and hungry for that presence that all the other sacrifices and hardships seem as insubstantial and petty as mosquito bites. A love,  a longing that is at once both utterly selfish and selfless.  And there is no "how do I get there," or at least there is no how.  For those who want it badly enough, I think it eventually sort of just happens.

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