Perception, Suffering, and the Presence of God

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October 14, 2018

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Our readings today may confuse us if we’re not careful.

We hear three distinct voices in our readings. They communicate sadness, desire, need, and perhaps helplessness.

All of these may fall under the broad umbrella of suffering.

We hear Job’s and his angst about God: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him…”

In our gospel reading, we hear the question posed: “what must I do to be saved?” – Jesus walks thru some commandments in answer…the person – who’s not identified in this gospel is referred to as the ‘rich young ruler’ in the other gospel narratives – he says, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth” --- this response by him in our narrative seems to show assurance is not being experienced. No sense that this is enough or “working.”

We’re seeing individual perceptions of reality.

Perception is a funny thing. It has to do with awareness and understanding – especially through the senses. We all have perceptions of things – situations, people, ourselves, God. Our perceptions are how we interpret and orient ourselves in our daily lives. Our perceptions are our reality…what we tend to forget is that our perceptions can be on point or they can be really wrong…but they tend to feel right because they’re ours.

Perception is the reality to each of us. Though it is not always the same reality.

In Job, his perception is that God is not there.

In contrast, the gospel reading shows an angst that we all, in ways, can dial into. This person is perceiving his obedience as not paying off or doing the trick…this person is not satisfied.

Perception.

We also catch a glimpse of perception in our psalm appointed for the day. This is a familiar Psalm of lament by one who feels utterly abandoned by God. The psalmist cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The psalmist and Job are asserting that God is not there or that God abandons us. I imagine most of us have at one time or another in our lives have felt similarly – had the same perception.

Let me pause was we delve into this – as I speak about suffering…I feel myself almost tip toeing around the word depression. Which is not a bad word. But as we’re in this place together this morning, let me say this – I’m not trying to provide the 5 or 10 steps to solve depression or suffering. Nor am I saying that being depressed and walking through it is simple, or that we even have the where with all at those times to be active or pursue anything or much at all. I affirm therapy and medication and know that sometimes that’s the best course of action.

But here…in this land of Job and our other readings, let’s be in the place of where things are not okay.

Shouldn’t they be okay?

Well, no.

In our present experience sin exists and its consequences. We refer to the first sin in scripture as “the fall.” The outcome? We live in a fallen world, full of fallen people, in the midst of a spiritual battle.

What can we expect?

We can expect to suffer.

Scripturally, that’s actually normative through Jesus’ example and pervasive in the New Testament. It really is part of the deal.

Culturally, the perception may be: follow Jesus and all will be well…but the real story with Jesus is – Life is hard, all the time.

But this is different than inconvenience…suffering and inconvenience can become blurred in American culture. Suffering is not waiting in line…it’s not having to walk farther because I could not find a parking place.

Our suffering is due to health, it’s in our relationships, it comes to us as we pursue the good, as we seek to deal with sin in our lives, as we follow Christ’s example.

Suffering. In simplicity it means bearing something. Something’s pressing on you. It could be oppressive or dangerous.

We all suffer in various ways.

What’s interesting to consider is how we respond. There are different ways we carry our suffering.

Maybe we’re like Job’s wife, who says to Job: Why don’t you just curse God and die?

Maybe we’re like Peter who later in his life and ministry through his writings encouraged humility, prayer, and resisting the devil.

Or maybe like Jesus, we be present to the pain of it but also are assured of the outcome. Jesus suffered throughout his life and ministry and on the cross. He also said: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

We heard the take away for us of Jesus’ example of suffering this morning – yes, he provides example in responding to suffering, but he suffered. He knows what its like to feel like Job, to feel like the Psalmist who laments.

Our Hebrews reading spells it out:

15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are… 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Ultimately there are two ways that our response to suffering can take us. One of my favorite movies illustrates this. It’s called Grand Canyon. Its main characters are contrasted as they respond to suffering in their lives in Southern California. This is shown as they both, unbeknownst to each other, fall onto the Grand Canyon as illustration while they both have time talking with their friend Mack.

Davis says to Mack

“The point is there's a gulf in this country...It's like this big hole in the ground, as big as the Grand Canyon, and what's come pouring out is an eruption of rage, and the rage creates violence, and the violence is real, Nothing's gonna make it go away.”

Simon also talking with Mack – also about the Grand Canyon says:

“...the thing that got me was sitting on the edge of that big old thing. Those rocks...is so old. Took so long for that thing to get to look like that... and it ain't done either..It happens right while you're sitting there watching it. It's happening right now while we're sitting here…When you sit on the edge of that thing, you just realize what a joke we people are. What big heads we got...Thinking our time here means diddly to those rocks. It's a split second we been here, the whole lot of us. And one of us? That's a piece of time too small to give a name.”

As Davis fuels anger and hopelessness in his life he becomes smaller and smaller as a person in the movie…Mack, as he listens to Simon’s thoughts on the Grand Canyon, gains perspective outside of himself and grows in hope and contribution to others.

What do we do? We look to gain perspective outside of ourselves. We crystallize our convictions about who we are and where we are going. We come to the throne of grace honestly…like job, like the psalmist, like Jesus – and we let it all out honestly…and we stay and get to know whose presence we are in.

“16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Amen.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.





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