From Suffering to Hope

(c) Eastop from Stock.Xchng

(c) Eastop from Stock.Xchng

I’ve been ordained nearly 9 years, and I think I’ve preached at all 8 of those Trinity Sundays. Rectors often pass it off to their associates so they don’t have to deal with a theology that is all about mystery.  Every analogy breaks down (see this video about St. Patrick for a good laugh).  My take is that the Trinity is best described as a divine dance, perichoresis.  I can only say that so many times, so I opted out of dealing with the Trinity directly and talking about Paul’s bit from Romans on Suffering leading to Hope in Christ.  So my sermon went in that direction this past Sunday.

Based on Romans 5:1-5.

Trinity Sunday 2013—May 26, 2013


“So we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; character hope. And hope does not disappoint us.”

Whenever hardship strikes, well meaning people say things like, “God only gives you what you can bear.” As a priest put it this week in speaking about the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma, “that platitude is a classic example of meaningless bumper-sticker theology.  It’s easily said and only makes sense when it goes by you so fast you don’t have time to think about it.”[1]   If you do take time to think about it the implication of course is that God forces suffering on you.  Not only that, you also must be incredibly strong in God’s estimation otherwise you wouldn’t be dealing with the difficulty.  When I’ve experienced hardship myself and people have said things like that to me, I’ve wanted to slug them, hard.  Or at least look at them and say something to make them realize how foolish this is.  But as a priest I can merely smile and nod; popping off a good zinger won’t do when I’m wearing a collar.

But rather than hitting with my fists or my words, what I want to do most of all is challenge their theology, this idea rumbling around that God causes pain, that God gives us suffering.  I don’t buy it for an instant myself.  “God doesn’t willingly grieve us,” scripture says in Lamentations.  And while I believe that God doesn’t bring us pain, I know that suffering comes on all of us as part of our human condition.  Not one of us is exempt.

The good news is that God can redeem the pain we encounter in life, that it can be taken and transformed and become the seed of something good.  God can take the pain, the hurt, the confusion brought onto us and convert it into purposes for good beyond our wildest imagination.

Rob Bell, in his book Drops Like Stars, explores the connection between difficulty in life and finding purpose.  He writes, “When you talk with people who have just received news that they have a life threatening illness, what do they say?  ‘Now I must get those hedges trimmed!’ ‘I’ve been putting off that plastic surgery long enough.’ ‘It’s finally time to join that online poker club.’

“No, of course not.  They talk about family and friends.  They gather those they love as close as possible.  They reflect on any amends that need to be made with anybody.  They talk about what matters most.  Suffering does that.

“It compels us to eliminate the unnecessary, the trivial, the superficial.  There is greatness in you.  Courage.  Desire.  Integrity.  Virtue.  Compassion.  Dignity.  Loyalty.  Love.  It’s in there — somewhere.  And sometimes it takes suffering to get at it.  It’s in there.”[2]

Corporal Daniel Riley, US Marine Corps, was born in Victoria, British Columbia and moved in 1999 to Colorado for his dad’s work.  He attended Columbine High School for three years, and then moved in order to complete his education back in Canada.  In 2008, while still a Canadian citizen, he enlisted in the Marines in order to help pay for his future education.  On July 4, 2009, he officially became a US citizen before the Vice President in a ceremony that took place at one of Sadam Hussein’s former palaces in Baghdad.

In September of 2010 Daniel shipped out to Marjah, Afghanistan as a combat replacement.  On December 16 of that year, while out on patrol, Daniel happened upon an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), sustaining significant damage to both legs, his left hand and left lung.  As it would happen, a photojournalist from Time traveled with the 1-214th, the Army medevac crew that airlifted Daniel.  Photos of him hanging in the balance as medics worked to save his life made it into the publication in January 2011.[3]

Daniel lost both legs above the knee and some fingers from his left hand, but he survived.  I followed his story with great interest and prayers as I worked closely with his father who served at the Office of the Bishop in Denver.  As you could imagine, his family rallied around him, moved from Denver to San Diego to be with him as he rehabilitated and posted updates on Daniel’s blog.  The hardships seemed insurmountable—too many surgeries, the physical and emotional pain, the reality of a new normal—but Daniel persevered.

You can find a Youtube video of Daniel walking on his computerized legs for the first time, which took place on May 17, 2011.  In August of 2011, I saw photos of him surfing, and that winter Daniel was on skis.  I’ve watched news reports from local stations around the country highlighting the recovery of soldiers when Daniel was one of those featured, often doing something amazing.

Daniel learned first hand that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; character hope.  The pain experienced from that December are unfathomable, yet Daniel did not give up.

Paul, in writing to the Roman believers wanted to encourage them to persevere.  To recognize that in the suffering of life God offers us a way to make meaning.  To see that we can strip away the unnecessary things and get to the core that God has already placed inside us.  We persevere in spite of hardships because we know that the hope of God “will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

We know what can happen if we lose heart.  Yoda, in speaking with young Anakin Skywalker in Episode 1 of Star Wars, lays it out in much the same way as Paul.   “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”  I’ve met those people who have experienced a significant trial or loss and have become bitter and angry.  They became so focused on what was taken away that they couldn’t see what stood before them, family and friends and opportunities in this world.  Despair and darkness crept in and stole away any hope they could have had.

Donald Miller in his fabulous book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years invites us to live a better story with our lives.  He spent a lot of money to go to a conference to learn how to write great stories.  They talked about plot and characters and setting and what motivates us as human beings.  He spent a few days listening and taking notes and dreaming.  And one of his take-aways from that gathering distilled down to this: “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”[4]

You may not have had an Improvised Explosive Device explode near the side of the road on your way to work this week, but some of you may have experienced an emotional IED.  Something that has blindsided you and caused you immense pain.  Some of you have been living with pain for a long long time, and may not know how to persevere or strengthen your character of resolve and dependence on God and to hope in the work of the Spirit.

When we hear stories like Daniel’s we recognize the God given human spirit of perseverance and hard work.  None of us would have blamed him if he had just given up, if he had chosen a life bound to a wheel chair and became self-medicating.  Yet how much more a testament is he to the work of God in his life?  Through his doggedness he continues to live a great story.

And we can too.  The gift of faith is that we have a hope both in this life and in the life to come.  We are those who know that the Triune God—Father, Son and Spirit—work together in order to bring us the joy found only in worship to the living One.  God invites us to not allow the random suffering of this world overcome us, but to have it lead us to deeper faith, greater character of person and renewed hope.  My prayer for you and for me is that we not lose heart, that we persevere through the difficulties in life and that we know deep in our bones the hope of God that will never ever let us down.  Amen.

[2] Rob Bell. Drops Like Stars.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. Pg. 90-91.

[3] James Nathcwey. “Wings of Mercy: Medevac in Afghanistan.” Time. January17, 2011.

[4] Donald Miller. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2009. Pg. 48.

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Steve Nelson

Thank-you Phil for this wonderful sermon. The message is a great one to help one get thru struggles: suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; character hope. This is far “kinder” than the 7 stages of grief!

Regards, Steve