Life as Suffering

Romans 8: 11-17

It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries. I hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes. For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills. And April’s in the west wind and daffodils. Oh to be in England now that April’s there. I’ll remember April. April in Paris.

April, the month that Easter ought always to fall in, the month of life again, the month when winter blues begin to fade before a new vitality and color in the world around. But have you noticed. They don’t sing songs about March or write poems about February, at least not in these parts.

So easily as we forget that life consists of both dying and rising again, a reality an old faith urges upon us, that as in nature so in human life, death and life are not enemies but belong together. Strange language in this old record. “If you be crucified with Christ, so shall you be raised with him. We were baptized into death, that we might rise to newness of life. If you put to death the base pursuits, then you will live.”

Strange language. And we especially have trouble with it in our time. We can sympathize with the little child who prayed, “Dear God, instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you’ve got now.” They didn’t have quite the same trouble back when Paul wrote, for death was part of the warp and woof of daily existence. One grew up with death as well as life. Even one hundred years ago among us it was a common occurrence. Not hid away in hospital beds or funeral homes.

But with our modern medicine and modern maturity we find it easier to keep our distance, to act as if it will never happen to us, or, at least, that we need not think about it. As Woody Allen puts it, “It is impossible to think about one’s own death objectively and still carry a tune.”

I have had hospital personnel tell me that when someone dies they often become invisible to staff. They represent failure and everyone flees. Someone posted an article on an obstetrical floor which said, “Recent research shows that the first five minutes of life are very risky.” Underneath someone else wrote, “The last five minutes are not so hot either.”

As I say, this is unfortunate, because it is not only a final death that we need to learn to face and become a little more comfortable with. According to Jesus and Paul there is a dying that must go on all the time in life if we are going to learn life. It is interesting how the early Christians took the story of this coming week, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus not only as one time event, but as pattern for life itself this side of the grave. Life is not just a matter of birth and then go, go, go, until the day we fall. There is a continual dying that is important to living.

“…if you put to death all the base pursuits of the flesh, then you will live.” Here, says Paul, is a dying that we must let happen to us with each new day. What is he talking about? As usual Paul is difficult. But what he means is this: We must die to sin, if we want to live.

There’s that word. Not very popular in our time. The conversation at the reception was brisk, and the young clergyman was unprepared for the onslaught from the prominent newspaper publisher, a woman whose ancestors had been among the founding families of his parish. “I don’t go to church any more myself,” she said casually, as she introduced herself. “Every time I go, all they talk about is sin.” To which he responded, “I have the same objection to your newspapers.”

I do not use the word often because I think it has developed connotations in our culture that are far from Biblical. But I should warn you that I allude to the subject all the time. When we talk about sin we are talking about our obsession with trying to save our lives over and above all other concerns and considerations, the driving passion we often exhibit to preserve our security, our popularity, our dignity, our control of life at all costs. The tendency to make these our ultimate life-shaping concern and passion, that is what the old Biblical word “sin” is really all about.

But why talk about dying to all this? Why this metaphor? Whatever our actions may be, they are rooted in very real needs and desires that are close to our hearts, that we love, but needs and desires that we must face up to and relinquish a bit, let go of, die to, put the knife to, if we ever want to know real life.

Needs and desires that we let take over our hearts as well as our habits. The need to be liked. How many young people get into trouble because they are driven by this need? The need to win. A business columnist insists that part of the reason for the violation of the rules on Wall Street is because a fraternity house atmosphere prevails. People are caught up in proving themselves the winners no matter the risks, no matter the cost.

The need to secure the approval, the acceptance of someone important to us, a need that can dominate our lives. One woman tells how after years of persuasion, her mother was finally talked into having a cataract operation. The daughter hoped that finally her mother would be less complaining and controlling. Returning home from the hospital, the mother sat down in front of the picture window in the living room, which looked out on the lake. “Do you notice any difference in the view, Mother?” the daughter asked. “I certainly do,” mother replied, “Don’t you ever dust?”

Now what is the point? The good life, the life that leads to happiness and peace and harmony and joy for ourselves and for those around us, requires a few deaths. We have to let die some measure of the needs and desires that tend to drive us, dominate us, obsess us, so that we can get on to other things, to giving ourselves to the labors and loves of real life.

The athlete knows this. He cannot indulge himself, follow every whim or appetite that comes along and still play the game well. One set of desires must die, if another set of goals are to live. One burly lineman for a pro football team tried to have it both ways. He often stayed out late despite the club’s curfew. He would pile things under his blanket making it appear he was in bed at bed check. At one hotel, however, he couldn’t find enough things to stuff the bed with, so he stuck a floor lamp under the covers and departed. When a suspicious coach peeked in at 1 a.m. and snapped on the light switch, the bed lit up.

All great religion unites in the insistence that mature, responsible and ultimately joyful life requires relinquishment of what Paul calls base pursuits, infantile desires, relinquishment of the need to always be first, right, secure, liked, revenged, comfortable. And that always hurts.

A psychologist tells of one of his toughest counseling sessions with a woman he calls Charlene. At a crucial point in their counseling, he asked her what she thought the purpose of her life was. He was surprised that she responded, “We exist for the glory of God.” But she said it in a flat low monotone as if she were sullenly repeating an alien catechism, learned by rote and extracted from her at gunpoint back in confirmation days. “The purpose of our life,” she said, “is to glorify God.”

“Well,” the psychologist asked. There was a short silence. For a brief moment he thought she might cry —the one time that had happened in their time together. “I cannot do it. There’s no room in me for that. That would be the death of me.” Exactly.

It is a fundamental move. Relinquishing one’s own inordinate needs and desires, dying to self, to live for God and the only life worth living. It is a move that we must make again and again. Paul says at one point, “I die daily.” All those needs to be first, right, winner, revenged, liked, absolutely secure, comfortable. Let go of them. Give them up. Let them die. Because then you will discover something wonderful. You will discover again and again that out beyond that dying, there is resurrection and real life, full of satisfaction and joy.

That is what the story of this day and week is finally all about. A thirty-six-year-old man out of Galilee rides into Jerusalem in the style of one of the old Kings of Israel. The people had anxiously, feverishly waited for just such a person, such a figure, such a Messiah, such a deliverer from God. God had been silent for centuries. The Romans cruelly reigned, ground the poor of the land into the dust. On his donkey to the waving of Psalms, Jesus is saying loud and clear the day of deliverance has arrived. That’s why they are cheering.

But he rides into town knowing that what he brings is not what they want. What everybody wants is bread and circus, privilege and power, comfort and ease; everything life had deprived them of. And what is he going to give them? Death. His death of suffering love. He does not want to die. He sweats bullets before bringing himself to it. He loves life perhaps more than anyone ever has. Embraces the beauty of his Galilean hills, the joy of time with friends around the table, the warmth of children in his presence, the company of close comrades on life’s way. Here is a man deeply in love with life.

And yet he is willing to die to all that, leave it all behind, sacrifice it all while yet young in years, for love of his people. Approaching the city he weeps for them. “Oh, that you knew what really makes for life.” For love of his people he is prepared to die…to show them how God loves them…to show them how they must love if they are ever to know life. Rather than run, rather than reign, he dies into love, to show them where real life lies.

And if you stop and think of it, this kind of love, even when we feebly manage it, always has a bit of dying about it. Louis Evely writes, “To be a real father is precisely to suffer, to become a real father is to become vulnerable. As long as one is young, one is selfish, defended. No doubt, one has terrible blues, emotions, melancholies, but one holds one’s own pretty well, one withdraws easily, one suffers only for oneself. Our compassion for others is generous and superfluous. But when one becomes a father, or a mother, one is suddenly vulnerable in the most sensitive part of one’s being. One is completely powerless to defend oneself. “

Elizabeth Stone once wrote that having a child is to decide to have your heart go walking around outside your body.

Any good marriage involves two people who are willing to die a bit on behalf of the needs and troubles of the other. I suspect many a marriage runs aground in our time because young people assume that they have a right to a relationship that is always sunny and comfortable. Somehow they miss the words read so often of a Saturday afternoon, words about joy and sorrow, words about a love that “suffers long,” that bears, that endures, as well as hopes and trusts. Such love always has a bit of dying about it, but we slowly learn that it also has a more real life about it as well.

I repeat — Jesus rides into Jerusalem to show us how God suffers us, bears with us, endures us; God shares the pain of loving in this kind of world. Jesus rides into Jerusalem to call us to die to ourselves with him, as he did, opening ourselves to his kind of suffering love, in the confidence that it leads to the only real life worth living, here and hereafter, a life of peace and courage and joy.

The Stoics of antiquity said: Be calm. Disengage yourself. Neither laugh nor weep. Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.

A woman writes about the death of her sister and brother-in-law in a freak accident, leaving three small children without parents. What to do? “During the hour I sat by the pond, my thoughts slowly evolved, changing from a confrontation with death to a confrontation with the lives ahead…young lives that had been broken. They needed to be mended. I didn’t know whether I could handle the burden. I had no idea where the energy was going to come from to do all the things that needed to be done, to meet the gaping emotional needs created by the double tragedy. But slowly as I accepted not only the pain of my loss, but of the task I confronted, the energy did come. It was a long time before I could put a name to it. But in quiet moments alone I over time came face to face with God’s unconditional love for me. But I also discovered something else. I discovered that you can’t embrace and live out that love in the abstract, any more than you can paint a picture in the air. No, you need five boys and two girls and one husband, three dogs, two cats, two birds, lots and lots of friends, and much, much more….Out of giving yourself to such mundane, often tiring and painful nitty gritty, real life is born.”

Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die; Bow thy meek head to mortal pain, Then take, O Christ, thy power and reign. Amen.