Sunday, December 02, 2012

I'm Thankful for This Year... of Suffering

I am thankful for being able to know suffering this year on an unprecedented scale from what I had known previously.

I know that sounds bizarre, and I don't want to give the impression that I enjoy suffering in any sense.  I hate death.  I despise everything about it, everything it has done to people I love, and what it will eventually do to me one day. I hate the fact that we live in a fallen world where suffering and death are inevitable.  Whether it comes suddenly (like the loss of my church friends) or slowly (in the case of my Granny), death is a terrible, terrible thing.  It really is "the last enemy" as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:26.

But suffering can also be instructive and purposeful in a Christian's spiritual maturity.

This morning, my pastor Brian Croft commemorated the anniversary of our friends' passing with a sermon from 2 Corinthians 1:1-11, where Paul famously proclaimed that God "comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort that we ourselves are comforted by God" (verse 4).  I seem to remember trying to do a Greek exegetical paper on that text, but most of those projects left me less sure of the text's meaning than I was before I even started the study (that's probably one of the reasons why I decided not to push my luck with biblical language studies in the post-graduate level).

Exegetical nuances aside, I think the meaning of this text is more easily accessible for Christian believers who have endured great suffering and loss but have consequently been strengthened in their faith because of that suffering.  They have been able to recognize Christ as truly sufficient for their weaknesses.  Those who have suffered greatly and lost much should be more willing and able to comfort other brothers and sisters who are going through their own struggles.

Truth be told, I've lived a very comfortable life.  I'm still living a very comfortable life.  Growing up, I didn't experience much loss.  Those losses have certainly started piling up in the last five years, however; such is the nature of life.  When you don't known the pain of loss, it's hard to really understand what most of the Bible is talking about.  So, instead of focusing your exegetical energies on comforting people with the Word of God, you can tend to distract yourself with discussions and debates over subjects that (while important) don't really capture the thrust of what the Biblical authors (and the Holy Spirit) were most interested in communicating to God's people.  I could indulge that point further, but now is not the time.

It's important that so many of Paul's letters begin and end with comforting words to the Christian churches.  These churches, regardless of their relative virtues and vices, were living in tough times.  Paul himself had seen suffering beyond what even most of them had experienced.  But even Paul knew that his own tribulations couldn't compare to the greatest sacrifice which our Lord Jesus Christ made for us in his Passion week.  Now that was the definition of a terrible seven days.  Our Savior suffered and died for us, and by His resurrection He secured our eternal reward.  That reward doesn't mean that we've been given a free pass in this life to avoid pain and live a perfectly comfortable life. Quite the contrary, in fact. Our suffering will come, whether by external forces bearing down upon us in hostility or through the natural course of life in a fallen world.

But we've got a promise that we serve a God who is also our Great High Priest.  He symphathizes with us completely in our infirmities and was tempted in every way, yet He was without sin (Hebrews 4:14).  Because of His suffering, we can approach the throne of God with confidence that He will bestow us grace to endure our own suffering and use our experiences to comfort others in their suffering.

Therefore, I'm thankful for this year in which God has taught me suffering, even if my experience is still meager compared to what most people in life deal with on a daily basis.  And I ought to be about the business of bringing comfort and grace to others, because I'm sure I'll be on the receiving end again in the future.

I'm Thankful for This Year, Part II

I am thankful for friends and family and for the time I've been able to spend building relationships with them over the past year.  When I learned of the death of the Boyetts, the first thing I thought about was how terrible it would be to suddenly lose my parents.  When I learned of the death of Stacy, the first thing I thought about was how terrible it would be to lose any of my dearest friends I have made throughout life.

After my friend Adam Embry called to inform me of Stacy's death, I jumped in my truck and personally went  to deliver the news to my dear friends, the Gould family.  After I returned home, I attempted to call up a number of old friends whom I hadn't spoken to in a long time.  As best as I could manage, I tried to tell my friends how much I deeply appreciated each one of them being a part of my life.  And I've been able to use this last year to take some opportunities in trying to make the most of those existing friendships and to work hard so that those bonds don't disappear due to neglect on my part.  I haven't been able to invest as much time as I'd like, and most of the time my contact with long-distance friends has to be limited to email, phone calls, or social messaging technologies.

Stacy's sudden death became a source of some guilt for me because for as much time as I spent with the Ellison family, I couldn't recall many instances where I had verbalized my appreciation of their friendship.  It's a cliche, but "sometimes the important things go unsaid."  For whatever reason, being fully honest about my feelings has been an emotionally difficult thing for me to do.  It's not so much that I'm hung up on some misplaced notion of masculinity, but it just doesn't feel like a very natural thing to my own personality.  Most of us don't live our lives constantly and repeatedly gushing about how much we appreciate our most beloved family and friends, but we shouldn't neglect that sort of thing altogether either.  When God takes folks away from us without warning, we'll regret the fact that we never took the opportunity to let those people know exactly what we thought about them.

I suppose that without that terrible week last year, it would have taken me longer to realize all that.  So I'm thankful that out of those tragedies came something good for me on a personal level.

One more post to come in this series later tonight.

I'm Thankful for This Year

November is the month in which we are most cognizant of our need to be thankful.  This week marked the one-year anniversary of a series of tragic deaths experienced by my Louisville church family, as I have written about repeatedly over the past few months.  A year ago Wednesday I was helping decorate the church sanctuary for Christmas when we heard news that Jackson and Barbara Boyett died in a car crash in Texas, a year ago Friday I was in my room surfing the net after work when I was informed that Stacy Ellison died, and a year ago this coming Tuesday I had just gotten back from Stacy's funeral when I got the call that Lester Jones (a dear old man who served our church for decades) finally passed away after years of declining health.  That was a terrible seven days.  When grieving and suffering loss of friends and family, it can be difficult to convince oneself that thankfulness is an appropriate and realistic response.  Nevertheless, I am thankful to God for many things that have come about in my own life over the course of the past year.

First of all, I am thankful for employment that has allowed me to strengthen my financial situation but also permits me the freedom to make short trips back home to see my family.  Last December, the seminary's archives department had a job opening and my co-workers recommended I apply for the full-time, salaried position.  I was reluctant to do so for a number of reasons, but I eventually decided to apply, interview, and finally accept the job offer effective January 9, 2012.  It's been a great experience, even if it has contributed to delays in progress of my dissertation due to time commitments.  However, the job has also taught me a great deal regarding archival and library skills that have proven valuable in my study efficiency, so it all probably evens out. 

My biggest concern with taking a full-time job was that the responsibility would allow me less time to go back to Tennessee and spend time with family, especially my Granny, who had been bed-ridden for about 2 years and needed constant care.  I wanted to be available in case I was ever called upon to attend to my grandparents on a more frequent basis.  Granny died in late July, but I was able to spend a few more important days with her before that happened, and I got the week off from work to attend and preach her funeral. 

I don't know if I'll stay in library-related employment long-term, as I do have other vocational aspirations, but I certainly am thankful that I am working the job that I have right now.

More to come on this theme later today...