Endurance Training

Runners

Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 8:4-7, 18-9:6, Romans 5:1-11, John 8:12-20


And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…
– Romans 5:3-4

I did not put you here to suffer. I did not put you here to whine.
I put you here to love another and to get out and have a good time.
– The Rainmakers, “Let My People Go-Go”

Suffering, while an inevitable part of the Christian journey, is never meant to be the destination. We are assured that, through the glory of God, all suffering can be transformed for good. We don’t need to seek pointless suffering just for the sake of enduring it, but when we need to exercise self-discipline or find suffering inescapable, we can turn that suffering over to God. But let’s not for a minute assume this is a passive process which requires nothing of us but curling up into a cocoon of self-pity and waiting for divine metamorphosis. It takes intention.

The steps in this process all require conscious choices on our part. Endurance training is something we take for granted in athletics, but not as often in other parts of life. Can we teach ourselves to view suffering as a form of spiritual training which develops our spiritual muscles? What about character? We romanticize the idea of sports building character, but not every top athlete is an upstanding citizen. Our spiritual training needs to be tempered with humility and mercy, a desire to serve rather than conquer.

The best coaches – and their best players – embrace being part of a greater story. It’s that type of character – the type that recognizes our greatest glory does not begin and end with our personal achievements and failures – which opens us up to hope. Hope is only present when we can see the big picture, the picture that tells the story of God’s kingdom becoming reality.

Athletes build endurance through difficulty. Butterflies nearly die before leaving the cocoon. Neither of them are victims of suffering; they use it to transform themselves into something miraculous.

Comfort: Suffering is not inflicted on us by God…

Challenge: … but God can help us through it.

Prayer: God of holy mystery, I trust you above anything. Amen.

Discussion: How have you dealt with suffering?

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Long Suffering

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; Christ at the Pool of Bethesda

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda – William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Today’s readings):
Psalms 67; 150, Isaiah 47:1-15, Hebrews 10:19-31, John 5:2-18


Today’s reading from John is significant for several reasons.

First, Jesus performs a healing on the Sabbath, which – according to the Pharisees – breaks the Mosaic Law. In this way he establishes that he understands the law better than they do.

Second, he commands the man he heals to get up and carry the mat he’d been lying on. This was also prohibited, so Jesus assumed authority to exempt others from the law.

Finally, Jesus refers to God as his Father, declaring himself beyond their ability to understand or judge. This only intensified the Pharisee’s desire to see him killed.

John tells us the man Jesus healed was only one of many invalids lying by a pool with alleged healing properties. When Jesus learned the man had been suffering for 38 years, Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well, and the healing and its ensuing controversy unfolded.

But what about all the other sick people by the pool?

John skips ahead in the story so we have no idea whether Jesus interacted with anyone else. The Gospels tell us several times that Jesus healed crowds of people, but not this time. Yet it doesn’t seem likely Jesus simply wasn’t concerned with them.

The truth is, not everyone is healed. Most of us are more likely to find ourselves among the long-suffering than miraculously made whole.  Some theologians would blame it on a lack of faith. Others would say each healing miracle serves a specific purpose in Christ’s ministry.

We can find ourselves caught between seemingly contradictory ideas telling us on one hand that faith will heal us and on the other that suffering brings us closer to Christ. Can both be true?

We must remember that whatever our plight, Jesus still sees and hears us. He still moves among us. His love and compassion for us are as great as they are for anyone else who seems more “blessed.”

Until he died, even Paul suffered an unnamed malady, which he called the “thorn in his side.” Rather than torture himself about why, he considered his weakness a perfection of his strength.

Suffering is not a sign of disfavor. No one gets to impose their own meaning on your suffering, but both illness and health present opportunities to grow closer to God. Whatever the state of your life, God loves you and is with you.

Comfort: In sickness and health, God is with us.

Challenge: Do something – volunteer, donate, etc. – to support people with chronic illness.

Prayer: God of compassion, I will seek you even in my suffering. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found meaning in suffering? If so, how?

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Why Thee?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Numbers 3:1-13, Galatians 6:11-18, Matthew 17:1-13
Evening Psalms 125; 90


Psalm 90 – the only psalm attributed to Moses – is written from the perspective of someone trying to make sense of it all at the end of a long life. The psalmist doesn’t sugar coat life’s difficulties. He prays the good days might at least outnumber the bad, and acknowledges that the lucky get 80 years of toil and trouble. Yet he prays for God’s work and its meaning to be manifest in the community.

The wise do not wait until the end of their lives to contemplate the meaning of work and suffering, nor do they wait until suffering is upon them. It’s tempting to keep the suffering of others at a certain emotional distance because identifying with it too closely forces us to admit it could happen to us. Distance feels safe, but leaves us ill prepared when God does not exempt us from disease, infidelity, loss, or other tragedy. Suddenly what we saw as part of God’s plan for another person becomes a crisis of faith in our own lives.

If we spend time now asking “Why them?” and “How would you have me respond?” we are less likely to be spiritually devastated when it’s inevitably time to ask “Why me?”

The psalmist doesn’t offer concrete answers to his questions, but the context gives us some clues about where those answers may lie. The questions are universal, and he asks them not about anyone in particular, but about the community. The work is not the work of any one person, but of the community. The meaning of the work transcends any single life or generation. Despite all Moses did to lead the Israelites, he never set foot in the promised land. Any satisfaction Moses gained from his efforts came from the knowledge he had played his role in the greater plan.

When it’s our turn to suffer – and we’ll all have our turn – the question “Why me?” overwhelms us if we can’t see ourselves as but one part of the whole of creation. If we’ve lived a self-centered life divorced from the story of the community, meaning will be difficult to find. Like words chosen by a skillful poet, each of us is complete, important, and beloved by God, but part of a greater work.

Comfort: You are an important piece of your community, supported by and supporting all the other pieces.

Challenge: See above.

Prayer: Loving God, grant me the patience and wisdom to encounter suffering with a heart of mercy and solidarity. Amen.

Discussion: What types of suffering do you identify with? What types do you find difficult to deal with?

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Just Because

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Job 38:1-11; 42:1-6, Revelation 19:4-16, John 1:29-34


Some questions have no answers, or at least none we can understand. Job was a righteous man who’d been greatly blessed by God; he had a large family, lands and livestock, and good health. When Satan (not the devil we think of, but a member of God’s court known as The Accuser) claimed Job would lose faith if God revoked his favor, God took the bet. He killed Job’s family and livestock, struck him down with terrible disease, and left him a ruined man sitting on a dung heap.

Job’s friends tried to explain why these terrible things happened to him. Saying he must have sinned, they blamed Job for his own ills, but he knew he was innocent. Like well-meaning people at a funeral who tell bereaved family members “it’s part of God’s plan,” Job’s well-meaning friends didn’t manage to offer one comforting word. We all desperately want things to make sense, but sometimes they just don’t.

When Job finally gets to confront God, God’s response is pretty unsatisfying: “Where were you when I created the earth, the seas, and the heavens?” In other words: “know your place.” God doesn’t even feel obligated to disclose the wager. Sure God gives Job a new family and restores his fortunes, but can that ever make up for what was lost?

Is there any comfort to be found in this story? If we can let go of our need to explain everything, there is the comfort of a certain harsh wisdom. Sometimes disaster will rain down on you for no apparent reason. It won’t be your fault, and honestly there may not be a silver lining. Trying to assign it a purpose may leave you looking and feeling as ignorant as Job’s friends.

We. Don’t. Always. Get. To. Know.

However, we can know that in the midst of our worst times, and God is with us and rooting for us not to lose faith. If there’s a lesson to be learned, learn it. But don’t let your need to find one be more important than your need to trust God anyway.

Comfort: When bad things happen to you, sometimes it is the unknowable nature of the world, not a reason to believe you are being punished.

Challenge: When you can’t find meaning in tragedy, you may be called to make meaning from it.

Prayer: God, I will trust you always. Amen.

Discussion: What in your life doesn’t seem fair? If you stop insisting that it make sense, does that make it easier or more difficult to accept?

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Where is bread and wine?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Lamentations 2:10-18, 1 Corinthians 10:14-17; 11:27-32, Mark 14:12-25


Maundy Thursday is the day Christians traditionally observe The Last Supper, when we received the gift of communion from Christ. No matter our particular practices and beliefs around communion, all Christians can recognize it unites us across time and place. The significance of celebrating a salvation accomplished through a broken body and shed blood has been contemplated for lifetimes, yet its power and mystery are undiminished.

The book of Lamentations speaks of infants crying “Where is bread and wine?”as they faint weakly on their mothers’ bosom. These elements have been staples throughout recorded history. Their presence represents abundance, and their absence despair. The author, who was referring to physical bread and wine,  probably could not have imagined a crucified messiah. Yet in Christ’s sacrifice abundance and despair are united in a way that assures us the divine is present in all things, even the worst life has to offer. Even sitting at a meal with a friend you know will betray you to excruciating death.

Some days we can’t see the bread and wine.

Where are they when disease robs us of our comfort and dignity?
Where are they when senseless accidents rob us of our loved ones?
Where are they when the world burns at the hands of madmen?
Where are they when children are abused, abandoned, and sold into slavery?
Where are they when depression shrouds our souls in darkness?

They are at the communion table. The Lord’s Supper is powerful because it gives us a taste of bread and wine when we can’t find them on our own. It acknowledges that – right now – life is hard and tragic and seemingly senseless … but because that bread is Christ’s broken body, and that cup is filled with Christ’s shed blood, it reminds us God is present among us – and revealed – in life’s tragedy. Our pain is as real to God as it is to us.

We have been wandering the wilderness for so long we can’t see our way out. For now the bread may taste like ash and the wine like tears, but Lent always surrenders to Easter.

Comfort: God is present with you right now.

Challenge: Today, allow yourself to grieve.

Prayer: God, my creator, make known to me your presence. Amen.

Discussion: What does communion mean to you?

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Mercy in the Middle

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 102; 27; 147:12-20, Habakuk 3:1-10 (11-15) 16-18, Philippians 3:12-21, John 17:1-8


One of singer Amy Grant’s most powerful songs is “Ask Me,” the true story of a young girl who experiences sexual abuse in her home. The arc of the song is hopeful, but not naive. Ms. Grant follows in the footsteps of psalmists and prophets struggling to understand where God could be in the middle of terrible trials. Lent is the perfect time for us to ask these questions, to mourn the state of the world. This season reminds us why we need the savior to enter God’s creation again and again.

Psalm 102 uses striking images to illustrate its author’s misery. He eats ash and drinks tears. His bones burn like a furnace. His heart withers like grass. His enemies taunt him until he is helpless as a little bird on a rooftop. Psalm 27 is the plea of someone whose enemies devour his flesh and exhale violence. The prophet Habakuk has visions of war and famine. Yet in the midst of these terrible events, all these writers cry out to the Lord. Habakuk says despite all the horrors around him, “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”

Faith does not require us to pretend we are okay with everything in our lives. When parents or children fall seriously ill, when civilians are bombed, when we lose a job, when we struggle with depression, when natural disasters destroy communities … God does not require us to meekly accept it. We can rant and rail to God about injustice and pain because – as Ms. Grant sings – “He’s in the middle of [our] pain, in the middle of [our] shame.”

Sometimes life stinks, and God knows it. Psalmists, prophets, and terrified little girls survive not by pretending God makes everything OK, but by finding the peace that comes through suffering authentically in God’s presence. Christ is God’s incarnate presence in a grieving world. He doesn’t come to meet uncomplaining cheerleaders, but to share in our suffering and redeem it through his own. Embrace the brokenness of yourself and the world, for that is where peace begins.

Comfort: God is always with you, even when your suffering makes him seem far away.

Challenge: Throughout Lent, look for opportunities to let someone share their struggles with you. Don’t try to fix it – just be present.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, thank you for suffering with me through my struggles. Please help me to lean on your mercies when my difficulties seem overwhelming. As I bare my soul to you, share your peace with me so others may see it also. Amen.

Discussion: This reflection is on specific readings, but chances are no matter when you read this you are aware of some unfolding tragedy. How are you responding to it?

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Hagar and the Horrible

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Genesis 21:1-21, Hebrews 11:13-22, John 6:41-51


Ever see those Christian t-shirts, bookmarks, or mugs declaring: “God won’t give you more than you can handle?” It’s a comforting thought — if we don’t think about it too long. However, if we are struggling with chronic pain, the loss of a child, or any number of devastating life events, this sentiment not only rings false, but raises a terrible theological question: “How could God give this to me?”

Abraham and Sarah had a servant named Hagar. God had promised them a child, but in their impatience they forced Hagar to conceive. After Sarah gave birth to Isaac she was jealous of Hagar’s son Ishmael, and told Abraham to banish them both. He sent them packing with some bread and a water skin. After much wandering, a thirsty and desperate Hagar placed Ishmael under the meager comfort of shady bush and waited for him to die.

God didn’t single out Hagar for suffering: Sarah and Abraham did. Abuse and oppression are never part of “God’s plan” for us. Neither are disease nor loss. God may use trials to strengthen us, but God does not heap hardship upon us just to test our endurance or faithfulness. Hardship finds us nevertheless.

Before her son could die, God led Hagar to a well. She and her son survived, and surely they were both influenced for the better or worse — or both — by this trauma. Eventually, as God promised, Ishmael’s descendants formed a mighty nation, alongside the descendants of Isaac. Of course Ishmael’s success did not justify the sufferings of Hagar, but it also meant she did not suffer in vain. What lesson might we learn from this story? Perhaps that no situation is so bleak God can’t help us through it somehow. A God who meets us at our breaking point is very different than a God who pushes us there.

Suffering can force us into a spiritual wilderness where we must rely on God to find our way. When we are in such a state of surrender, God’s mercies can redefine our suffering to have dignity and purpose. God will always offer you more grace than you can handle.

Comfort: Your suffering is not meaningless because God suffers with you.

Challenge: Be cautious about attributing God’s will to humanity’s weakness.

Prayer: Merciful and Loving God, I will trust in you and your grace at all times. Amen.

Discussion: What situations in your life are causing you pain, and how might God help you find a higher purpose for them?

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Jesus, Life of the Party

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Genesis 6:1-8, Hebrews 3:12-19, John 2:1-12


Christianity is serious business. The language of our faith uses words like sacrifice, atonement, sin, repentance, blood, and crucifixion with alarming regularity. We often speak of love as a demanding experience. We revere saints who deprived themselves of all earthly pleasures and martyrs who died in horrible ways. Suffering and death are undeniable parts of our collective story. If we are supposed to be willing to follow Christ to the cross, why do we ever sing songs like “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart?”

Despite the bloody reality of the cross and the traditional fire and brimstone sermons we have heard, suffering is not the default position of the Kingdom of God. Christ did not suffer and die just so we could continue suffering and dying. In the book of John, his first public sign is turning water into wine at a wedding banquet. That’s right: he made his public debut at a party, and performed a miracle so the party wouldn’t have to stop. It wasn’t just any party though – it was a celebration of life recognizing a joyous bond between two people, and the bond between each of them and God.

The Cana story does not appear in other Gospels, but in Matthew Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a wedding banquet where outcasts feast. In this life suffering may be inevitable, but we don’t need to wear it like a uniform to be good Christians. To the contrary, Jesus had little regard for people who put their suffering on display as a show of piety. We are to confront head on the suffering of the world and help where we can, and to rely on God when we ourselves suffer, but we are never to be resigned to misery. While suffering is sometimes the cost of staying the course on the way to the feast, it is not God’s desire for us. The ultimate purpose of the crucifixion was eternal life. Jesus came to heal us, to teach us to forgive, and to celebrate with us. Let’s not forget to RSVP.

Comfort: God wants us to be joyful.

Challenge: Best as you can, don’t run away from people’s suffering; confront it with them without being consumed by it.

Prayer: Lord, lead me to those whom I can help, and open my hearts and hands to them. Amen.

Discussion: Suffering is part of life. Is there a way to make it useful?

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Hope. Always.

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Readings: Psalms 90; 149, Amos 5:18-27, Jude 17-25, Matthew 22:15-22


Ever since the world began, people have been predicting its end. For many that “end” is not so much a final obliteration, as a renewal when the evil, violence, and injustice will be swept away to make room for something better. The prophet Amos speaks of the day when God will “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” When we read headlines and watch the news, don’t we long for the same?

We can react to adversity with despair or with hope. While we may naturally tend toward one or the other, it is ultimately a choice. In the midst of suffering hope may seem futile or naive, but it has real consequences. Repeated studies show that a positive attitude promotes healing from illness and surgery. On a fundamental level, hope is essential to survival; hunger, thirst, and fear may seem like negatives, but they are hard-wired into us with an assumption that we will continue to live.

Though hope is more than a belief in continued existence. Despair also assumes existence but resigns us to inaction and victimhood, where hope spurs us to positive action. Hope makes charity possible, because it allows for positive change. Without the promise of hope could we even contemplate mercy?

In an age when tragedy around the world is broadcast into our homes 24 hours a day in high definition, hope can be hard to maintain. The truth is that on the whole violence in the world has been decreasing steadily for decades. Data and statistics are not necessarily comforting in the face of immediate crisis, so how do we work (and it is intentional work) to maintain hope? Minister and children’s television host Fred Rogers famously quotes his mother who told him the best thing to do in times of disaster is “look for the helpers” – people who move toward a tragedy to improve the situation. While it seems counterintuitive, could the Kingdom actually be ushered in when we move nearer to tragedy, where we are also nearer to mercy and charity? That is the end we hope for.

Comfort: We are closer to the promises of the God’s Kingdom every day.

Challenge: You can’t help everyone, but somewhere nearby there is a tragic situation waiting for you to inject hope into it. Find it and act.

Prayer: Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:7)

Discussion: Is hope something that comes naturally to you?

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Hope Realistically

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Readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Amos 4:6-13, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 21:33-46


Wouldn’t it be nice if people of faith were assured peaceful, healthy, uncomplicated lives? Some preachers – mostly of the “send us your money to pray over” variety – claim disease and difficulty can be overcome by faith alone, and that adversity simply fills a void where faith is lacking. The prophet Amos, describing God’s attempts to use drought, famine, and plague to convince the people of Israel to return to him, would claim differently. The faithful and the wicked suffered the consequences of the wicked together. When the world experiences similar troubles today, whether we believe they are sent directly by God or the natural consequences of our own misguided actions, faith is not guaranteed to shield us.

In Jesus’s parable of the landowner, tenant farmers kill the blameless servants who have come to collect the agreed upon share of the harvest on behalf of their master the landowner. One might expect the aura of authority lent by their master would protect the servants, but it does not. One can find many parallels in our modern world, where Christians continue to be persecuted for their faith. From actual martyrdom and execution to depression, addiction, illness, and crime,,, our faith exempts us from none of it.

If we are not spared suffering, why have faith at all?

Faith is the source of hope. We believe in God’s eternal plan of justice and salvation, and trust our sufferings are finite. As part of a larger body, we know the suffering and even destruction of one part does not have to mean the death of the whole. We stand in the center of the wreckage and devastation – and sometimes the wreckage and devastation dwell in the center of us – but we do not allow them to define us. In the face of seemingly endless disaster, is there anything realistic about hope? There is if our hope is dependent not on this moment, but on the faith that the Kingdom of God will not be denied. The ailing body of humankind will be raised to true life again. A stumble is still a step forward.

Comfort: God is with us through suffering, whether or not it is of our own making.

Challenge: When others suffer, let’s offer support instead of empty words.

Prayer: Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me. (Psalm 17:8-9)

Discussion: Do you think there is anyone who hasn’t somehow caused someone else to suffer?

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