Dying to Live: Suffering for a Higher Purpose

A few weeks ago, I was in the gym and noticed a guy working with a personal trainer. He was doing an abdominal circuit, and after a few supersets of planks and crunches he started groaning in pain. Now I work out, but my routine is not as intense because I have two simple goals: to not look fat in clothes, and to stay fit enough to surf. So, as I watched this guy, I thought, “Why would anyone submit themselves to this?” Then it occurred to me, he has different goals. Like my friends who do CrossFit, some people push themselves to the limit, enduring discomfort and pain, because they want to get in the best shape possible for their age and body type. If that were my goal, I would probably be doing the same.

Indeed, most of us are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain for a higher purpose. Think about the sacrifices that parents make for their children, that students make for a degree, that professionals make for their careers, that soldiers make for their country, or that missionaries make for the mission of Jesus.

 

Choosing Suffering for a Higher Purpose

All of us experience suffering that we don’t choose, and when this happens we try to stay close to God and do our best to handle it with faith and maturity. In the process, we hope to learn important lessons, grow spiritually, and become better people.

But not all suffering is forced upon us. Sometimes we choose it in service to a higher purpose. This is certainly true as we seek to follow Jesus, who says in Mark 8:34-35:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Jesus is saying that sometimes we are called to choose suffering, to carry a cross, to experience a kind of death. Furthermore, he teaches that there are at least two higher purposes that empower us to be obedient.

First, suffering can serve as a catalyst for our own spiritual transformation. It can help us become more compassionate, loving, kind, wise, strong, virtuous, and faithful. It can help us become more like Jesus. Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to choose a life of self-sacrificial love.

I’ve heard countless testimonies of how people felt closer to God when going through suffering than in any other time of their life, and how God used their pain to change them in positive ways. While they didn’t necessarily enjoy the pain, they felt called to take-up a cross, and by faithfully carrying it became a better version of themselves. God expanded their capacity for compassion and gratitude, which helped them to live with more purpose, value, meaning, and joy. In short, when we are called to travel the road of suffering and are obedient, we can learn many lessons that make our lives better in the long run.

Second, God can use our suffering to help accomplish God’s great rescue mission of this world. The biggest source of inspiration for me in becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus has been other Christians. Not heroes of the faith, but ordinary men and women who handle great adversity and pain with grace, patience, and courage. These living and breathing examples of Christ inspire me to step-up my commitment and be more faithful in my own devotion and service. In this way, God uses our suffering, especially the way we move through it, to help and inspire others, which is one important way that God transforms the world.

In summary, if we are going to take-up our cross and follow Jesus, then we need a clear vision of a higher purpose, something that is compelling an inspiring, something that is bigger than ourselves. According to scripture, that higher purpose is spiritual transformation, which not only makes our own lives more meaningful but also makes us useful in God’s great rescue mission of this world.

The best example of this is Jesus himself. To accomplish his mission and serve the greater purposes of God, he was required to choose suffering. The gospels make clear that no one took Jesus’ life from him, but he willingly laid it down for the salvation of the world. This was so counterintuitive that Peter, one of his greatest disciples, refused to even consider the idea, pulling Jesus aside and rebuking him in private. Turning to his disciples, he scolded Peter: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things not divine things” (Mark 8:31-33). Jesus continued by teaching the disciples that if they wanted a life worth living then they had to be willing to suffer, to take up a cross; that they must crucify their ego and completely surrender to God. And Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also lived it to the end, even to the point of death on a (literal) cross.

Following the example of Jesus, many others have witnessed to these truths about sacrifice and suffering. Think of all the biblical characters who illustrate the value of suffering for a higher purpose, people like Abraham, Mary, Peter, and Paul. Think also of the great cloud of witnesses throughout Christian history, culminating in our time with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. And think of all the faithful Christians with whom we have the privileged of sharing life even to this day.

As we learn and meditate on these stories and countless others, we get a clear vision of the higher purposes of discipleship, especially during seasons of suffering. They remind us of some essential truths:

  • God will not allow our suffering to last forever. It’s only for a season.
  • Our suffering is not meaningless, nor is it in vain. While God does not cause our suffering, he certainly finds ways to use it for our own transformation and that of the world.
  • God suffers with us, so we never face our pain alone.
  • God gives us everything we need to move through suffering with grace, maturity, and faithfulness, and when we fail God offers grace and forgiveness.
  • Our suffering will eventually give way to joy.

These are the promises of God that together generate a vision of a higher purpose that empowers us to choose the way of self-sacrificial love. Without them our suffering becomes meaningless and death-dealing. Without them we’ll never be able to faithfully follow Jesus during seasons of great suffering and learn the lessons therein.

 

The Dialectic of Suffering and Hope

All of this leads to an important truth: we should never collapse the tension in Christian life between suffering and hope, because that tension is creative and transformative.

It is true that all of us experience suffering, and part of what it means to be a Christian is to learn how to handle our suffering in a Christlike way. Wisdom teaches that we should expect suffering, so we can prepare for it. However, Christianity cannot be reduced to suffering, nor does it seek to glorify suffering in and of itself. It never has the last word in the Kingdom of God. There is never a cross without an empty tomb, never a death without a resurrection. Christianity is about the good news that love wins, life wins, God wins, and when we talk about the necessity of suffering it’s always in the context of God’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death. Therefore, as we anticipate and prepare for seasons of suffering, as we take-up our cross and follow Jesus, it’s important to remind ourselves of the higher purposes of God. Suffering without hope leads to an unproductive and death-dealing despair that has no place in the Kingdom of God. Likewise, hope without sacrifice leads to empty wishing, and joy without an honest acknowledgement of suffering leads to a kind of sentimentality that make it hard to take Christianity seriously.

True Christianity acknowledges the truth and importance of both suffering and hope, holding them in productive tension. As we live in this tension, as well as that of law and grace and love and justice, God recreates us in the image of Jesus and gives us the possibility of a truly good life.

 

Challenge

Remember the words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Where do you find yourself in all of this? Is God calling you to something higher? Is there a sacrifice you need to make or a season of suffering you need to endure to achieve the higher purposes of God? Do you need to get into recovery, spend some time grieving losses in therapy, do some painful emotional work with your spouse or kids, give-up something that is blocking your own spiritual growth, sacrifice more time for deeper spiritual practice, or make a major decision that you’ve putting off too long?

We are all in different places on the disciples’ path, and God calls us to different seasons at different times. Only you know what God is calling you to do. In your own discernment process, remember that God is with you, and that if you stay close to Jesus and move forward with faith then your suffering will not be in vain. God will use it to transform you and others. Remember the promises of God and allow the hope transmitted therein to give you want you need to keep moving forward in ways that are life-giving and productive.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, show me your will, and give me the courage to carry it out, even if it requires taking up a cross.

 

(This post is the twelfth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

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Preparing for Stormy Seas: The Necessity and Gift of Suffering

Context for the Gospel of Mark: The Burning of Rome

On July 19 in the year 64 C.E., a fire broke out in Rome. It lasted several days, killing many and reducing most of the great city to embers. The emperor at the time, Nero, had previously proposed to demolish and rebuild most of the city in a classical manner, so rumors spread that he started the fire to make it easier to proceed with his plans. As a result, Nero came under attack by his senators. He needed someone to blame, so he scapegoated the Jews. His ploy was believable because most Jews lived on the outskirts of town across a river, and because of their location were untouched by the fire.

Word spread quickly among the Jews and fear spiraled out of control as they anticipated mass suffering at the hand of brutal tyrant. Desperate to avoid Nero’s wrath, some Jews went to the emperor and accused a fringe group of setting the fire, the Messianic Jews who followed Jesus. Nero’s response was horrific. He demanded that the larger Jewish community collaborate with Roman soldiers to identity Christians, and to save their own families they agreed. “A mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on each door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Christ believer. The answer determined the fate of the householder and everyone else in that house.”[i] If a believer was identified, either by admission or someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. Most were led into the Circus Maximus, chained to the floor, splattered with blood, and eaten alive by starved dogs. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified as a Christian, then those living there were forced to name someone else, who was then seized and executed without trial. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day. In the end, the Christian community in Rome was destroyed.

It is hard to imagine this horror. The Messianic Jews were betrayed by their own people to mass murder. The Christians who escaped and those who lived in neighboring areas were isolated in a sea of terror, fear, persecution, and death. It must have been hard to believe in the promises of Jesus, especially since their slaughter was the result of their belief.

Most scholars date the Gospel of Mark to around 70 C.E., and while its audience is debated, it certainly fits the situation of the early Christians who were recovering from the aftermath of unimaginable cruelty. As such, it gives guidance to Jesus followers regarding how to faithfully navigate fear, resentment, hatred, persecution, and suffering.

 

The Gospel of Mark and the Second Path of the Quadratos.

As the Gospel of Mark addresses the question of how we move through suffering, thereby disclosing the second path of the Quadratos.[ii]  Those who walk the road to transformation sometimes feel like they are in a small boat on a stormy sea. “The winds and water lash at us as we are tossed about in a gray, horizon less [sic.], directionless world.”[iii] We’ve gone too far to return to the beginning, but we’re not sure how to discern the best way forward either. As we stand facing the horizon, Mark reminds us of a hard truth: sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Suffering is to be expected and is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. But, Mark also reminds us that suffering is only for a season and that there are reliable spiritual practices that can help us along the way. We endure by praying, listening, and acting accordingly.

 

Good News in Suffering

Given all that we know about the context, audience, and theme of the Gospel of Mark, one might think that it would begin with a sobering word of caution, something like, “Buckle-up buttercup because it is about to get really bad!” But it doesn’t. In stark contrast, it reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, emphasis added). I can imagine a Christian living in Rome around 70 C.E. saying, “Good news? What good news?” The Messianic Jews didn’t appear to have much to celebrate. Even though they decided to follow Jesus, their obedience to the call threatened their lives and resulted in the senseless murder of family and friends.

Nevertheless, Mark begins with the proclamation of good news. While all the evidence may seem to suggest that the teachings of Jesus are an exercise in empty wishing, we hear the voice of a cloud of witnesses: God’s promises are true. It may not look like it or feel like it, but God is faithful, and your suffering will not have the last word—that is reserved for redemption. Mark reminds us that we follow one who not only shows us the way forward but also understands our pain, because he has experienced it too. He walks with us and suffers with us, so that we will have everything we need to move through it.

An important truth revealed in Mark is that we cannot bypass suffering.  We must go through it. Suffering is a necessary part of our spiritual transformation because there are lessons that can only be learned as we wrestle with pain. But the good news is that God will see us through, and our faithfulness will be a contribution to God’s great rescue mission of this world. By beginning with the proclamation of good news, Mark is telling us to gather our strength and hope by remembering the promises of God, which help us understand our suffering as part of a larger divine process.

Although we will learn many important lessons and develop many helpful tools in our study of Mark, it is important to remember something from the very beginning. There is not only good news despite our suffering, or in the face of our suffering, or at the end of our suffering. There is also a gift in the suffering insofar as it helps us get in touch with what is most essential about our faith.

Since so many Christians in America experience a life of ease, which can function to distort the gospel message, it is often helpful to ask, for what are we willing to suffer? For what are we willing to be persecuted? For what are we willing to die?

Many of us are born, then born again, and die in comfort. As those living in a country founded on religious freedom, most of us will never face the terror of the early Christians. Indeed, the very idea of martyrdom has become unintelligible for most American Christians.[iv] This is not only the case for individual Christians, but the church has the luxury of dodging these questions too. Even though some influential Christian groups cry persecution as a political strategy, these claims smack with absurdity when considering what our brothers and sisters have endured through the ages, and even now in places like Syria.

It seems to me that we are most lax in our faith and divided in our beliefs when life is good. Individuals and churches that enjoy wealth and influence are tempted to misuse these gifts for selfish gain, squabbling over trivial matters and confusing the essentials of faith with political agendas. This can be clearly seen in our current context in which many people who profess to follow Jesus have all but completely abandoned his teachings and the value system of the Kingdom of God.

But persecution—real persecution—has a way of parsing, sifting, and separating that which is essential and non-essential in the Christian faith. When facing torture and death, you don’t have time to quibble over extraneous or peripheral issues. And while many of us will never face torture and death because of our faith, all of us will eventually suffer as a result of our decision to follow Jesus. Mark helps us to see that this suffering, understood in the right context, can be a gift insofar as it cuts to the core of what we really believe and shows us what we are made of.

Listening to the words of Jesus while enduring a season of suffering reminds us that Christianity is not a social club, a non-profit relief group, or a political action committee. It is not one collection of ancient teachings among others from which we can pick and choose to build our own philosophy of life. Rather, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he bids us to come and die.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[b] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Mark 8:34-37)

Jesus is saying, I want you to base your entire life on the truths I am proclaiming and to believe it so deeply that you practice it even when it requires you to lose everything. Given the hostile environment in which these words were recorded, we can say that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically. It is no coincidence that the word for witness in the early church was the same word for martyr, because being a Christian meant staking your life on the gospel of Jesus.

When we face the prospect of acute suffering because of our decision to follow Jesus, these teachings once again dawn on our consciousness, and if we do not quickly dismiss them they create an opportunity to wrestle with the question, “Do I really believe this stuff?” Human beings have an incredible capacity for self-deception. In terms of our faith, we often say that we believe something only for the truth of that claim to be questioned by the prospect of sacrifice. Suffering has a way of cutting through self-deception and getting us in touch with what we really believe in our heart of hearts, what we are willing to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for. Suffering can function as a kind of refining fire, separating the essentials from the non-essentials and giving us a gut check regarding our commitment to the essentials.

This is the way our ego is crucified so that our true self can be resurrected. This is the path to honesty, which is the path to humility, which makes true faithfulness possible. But this path is not easy. It is the most difficult part of our journey toward transformation, and we need the wisdom of the Gospel of Mark to illuminate our way and give us the tools we need to make it through. This will be the focus of our reflection in the weeks to come.

 

Challenge

But for now, it is important to gather our strength by remembering that we live in the power of good news even when experiencing deep suffering, and that the suffering itself can help us get in touch with what is most important, true, and helpful about our faith. In this way, we gain sound footing on the difficult road that lies ahead.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as dark, rumbling clouds approach the horizon and waves begin to beat against the boat, remind us of your faithfulness and give us the courage to trust your ability to get us to the other side.

 

(This post is the ninth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[i] This account of the burning of Rome and the scapegoating of Christians is taken from Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind (Journey of Quadratos: Santa Fe, 2017) 130-132.

[ii] Ibid., “Crossing Mark’s Stormy Sea.”

[iii] Ibid. 128.

[iv] See Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

You Don’t Walk Alone: Change, Spiritual Journeys, & Resurrection  

The Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus, is quoted as saying, “The only thing that is constant is change.” Most of us know this from experience, even though we tend to resist change because it requires us to grieve losses and navigate countless unknowns.

When we decide to make a change, or one is thrust upon us, we typically do one of two things: cling to the past in fear or find the courage to move through it. While it is hard to admit, resisting change keeps us stuck in unproductive ways of living and ultimately proves to be a fruitless enterprise. Things are going to change whether we like it or not, and if we do not develop flexibility and learn to adapt it is at our own peril. In contrast, accepting change and courageously stepping into the future creates the necessary conditions for human beings to learn, grow, and experience a deeper sense of meaning.

Additionally, as Christians, we believe that God is at work in the world, giving us clear ideals and luring us into ways of being that make the realization of these ideals possible. So, when Christians face change, we not only see the potential for emotional growth, but for spiritual growth too. When God calls us in a new direction, it is an opportunity to better serve God’s mission in the world and realize God’s dream for our lives. We are given eyes to see meaning, purpose, and directionality in change as we embark on new spiritual journeys.

 

Challenges of Change

However, we also know that navigating change is no easy task, especially when considering a variety of predictable challenges. We will be tempted to disassociate from the parts of our story that evoke embarrassment or shame, cutting us off from important lessons that can be learned only by reflecting on our failures. We will experience fear of the unknown, tempting us to return to old ways of living that no longer help us become the person God is calling us to be. We will be tempted to misuse God’s good gifts to escape pain and secure worldly success. The value system of the world will try to lure us off the path of discipleship, causing us to forget who we are as children of God. As we face unknowns and experience anxiety, we will be tempted to abandon personal responsibility by blindly submitting to religious authority. Instead of encouraging us to follow our hearts, people we love may betray us.

Taken together, these challenges can feel overwhelming, even for the most seasoned and mature travelers. So how do we faithfully navigate these challenges on our quest for spiritual transformation?

First, we remember that learning to deal with these trials in graceful and faithful ways takes a long time. It includes lots of trial and error, success and failure. We are going to mess-up—often—but the real question is whether we will learn from our mistakes and get a little better each time. Those who have gone before us say that we will never survive the process of maturation unless we are gentle with ourselves. Second, it always helps to have good traveling companions, which is one of the benefits of joining a healthy community of faith. Some people will feel threatened by our transformation and try to pull us backwards. Without a community of people on a similar journey to encourage and support us, it’s difficult to keep moving forward. As the Beatles knew, we get by with a little help from our friends. Third, we must stay close to Jesus.

 

Staying Close to Jesus: The Gift of Resurrection

When considering the possibility of staying close to Jesus, it helps to reflect on the story of the resurrection in the Gospel of Matthew, because it reminds us that we do not walk alone. The resurrected Jesus is always present through the power of his Spirit doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Even when we feel completely isolated it is not because God is absent but because, for whatever reason, we have been rendered blind, deaf, or numb to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship, which is a life of radical transformation. He also shows us the way to be transformed by his life and teaching. But there is more to the story because this same Jesus was raised from the dead by God, is eternally present through his Spirit, and gives us the power to faithfully walk the path of transformation and experience real change. Remember his last words in the Matthew: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus does not leave us orphaned. We never walk alone.

This is certainly good news because no one can faithfully navigate change without God’s help. People who have recovered from addiction provide great testimony to this truth. While we need good friends to encourage and support us, there are things we need on our journey that only God can provide.

Indeed, as we stay close to Jesus and wrestle with change, he gives us many important gifts. As we face the pain and shame in the dark parts of our story, Jesus gives us the gift of redemption. As we face our fears of the unknown, Jesus give us courage. As we resist the temptation to misuse God’s good gifts to escape pain or secure worldly success, Jesus gives us faith. As we resist the value system of the world and embrace the value system of the Kingdom of God, Jesus gives us wisdom. As we question religious authority and learn to author our own lives, Jesus gives us honesty and authenticity. As we heal from the brokenness of betrayal, Jesus gives us compassion and restoration.

Redemption, courage, faith, wisdom, honesty, compassion, and restoration, these are awesome gifts that not only help us begin our journey toward transformation but also prepare us for what lies ahead.

 

Challenge

In conclusion, there are a few things that will help us faithfully navigate change. First, and most importantly, stay close to Jesus by committing to a daily practice of reflection, meditation, and prayer. These spiritual disciplines do not save us or inoculate us from suffering, but they do create space for us to reconnect with God and become more aware of God’s perpetual presence. Second, secure a trusted spiritual director or soul friend who can serve as a good travel guide and connect with a group of friends that will support and encourage your spiritual evolution. Third, take stock of all the gifts that God has already created in you as a result of diligent struggle with trial and temptation, and allow these gifts to generate the courage, hope, and strength required for the next leg of your journey.

 

Prayer

Gracious God give me wisdom to know where you are leading and what needs to change in my life. As I do my best to stay close to Jesus and faithfully navigate the challenges of change, create in me the spiritual gifts needed to keep moving forward. Amen.

 

(This post is the eighth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

The Temptation to Escape Pain: Three Stumbling Blocks to Spiritual Transformation

“I can’t take any more heartbreak.” Zach[1] was a man that struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a deep fear of being alone. Over the course of many years he had learned to deal with these feelings through serial monogamy. Bad feelings were triggered by a break-up, after which he would quickly go on the hunt. Eventually, he would meet someone new, whose attention and affection would sooth his discomfort. However, the bad feelings always came back after the newness of the relationship wore off, which compel Zach to act in possessive and controlling ways. Predictably, within several months the relationship would unravel, throwing him back into the anxiety and loneliness he was trying to escape. After several years of this vicious cycle, he was sitting in my office at the end of his rope.

I suggested that Zach devote himself to a season of singleness. Instead of focusing all his attention on finding the perfect partner to banish his loneliness, perhaps he should go inward to discover the wounds that were driving his pain. “Zach, as long as you are self-medicating with women, you will never see the roots of the problem, and they will continue to control you behind your back.”

What Zach needed was to find a way to abide with his pain long enough to understand it and to develop some tools to work through it. Instead of compulsively trying to get out of discomfort, he needed to feel it, reflect on it, pray about it, and talk about it. Unfortunately, Zach didn’t act on this counsel, but immediately jumped into another dating relationship, starting the self-defeating cycle all over again.

How often are we like Zach? When experiencing discomfort or pain, how often do we compulsively do things to distract and console? We know in our heart of hearts that this is a fruitless, even self-destructive, way of handling things, but the scream for soothing is louder than the whisper of wisdom.

But wisdom teaches that if we want healing and transformation then we must find a way to deal with the temptation to circumvent emotional and spiritual pain.

 

How the Temptations of Jesus Can Help

We find wisdom for this part of our journey in the temptations of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11). As we focus on this passage, what’s most helpful is not a literal interpretation of the specific trials, but an understanding of the dynamics of temptation revealed by a symbolic reading of the story.

 

Trial 1

After Jesus had been fasting in the desert for forty days, the “tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (4:3). In this way, Jesus was tempted to grasp something readily available to him and transform it into something else that would satisfy his hunger.

At first glance, we might not be able to see ourselves in this part of the story, but if we look more deeply it becomes clear that we too face this temptation. Discomfort and pain trigger cravings that we try to satisfy by misusing God’s good gifts. For example, the Bible says that wine, in moderation, is a divine blessing that makes the heart merry, and Jesus’ use of wine in the Last Supper elevates it as a symbol of forgiveness and the full reign of God’s righteousness on Earth. Unfortunately, many abuse this good gift by using it as an emotional anesthetic. Likewise, God gives us sexual intimacy to nurture deep and abiding love, but many transform it into a strategy for escaping pain. Through fantasy and objectification, human beings become objects that can be consumed to satisfy selfish hungers and sooth discomfort. Even emotional gifts like anger can be used to cover-up fear and hurt. God gives us the capacity for anger so that we can recognize and respond to injustice, but we transform it into an obsessive form of negative excitement that hides our fear and brokenness.

Indeed, virtually every good gift of God can be converted by the sinful use of power into a strategy for escaping emotional and spiritual pain. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). Jesus refuses to misuse people and things to deliver him from discomfort but endures these experiences as necessary for the life to which God had called him.

 

Trial 2

Then the tempter led Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus responds, “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (4:5-6).

How often do we try to get God to perform a magic trick that will exempt us from the natural consequences of our own actions? The temptation of immature and false religion can be seen in our attempts to leverage God’s love and faithfulness to get miraculous relief from pain. Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing our desires to God, and God certainly works in mysterious ways to help us through difficulty, but mature spirituality always gives way to the prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, Matt. 26:42).

Nevertheless, when wrestling with the negative consequences of their own actions, religious people sometimes spiritually and emotionally regress. “God, what have I done to deserve this? I have been faithful to you, so if you love me, if you are faithful and just, then rescue me from this pain!” Some even act as if the request for a magic trick is completely selfless: “God, miraculously deliver me from this bad situation I’ve caused for myself so that unbelievers will come to know your power.”

In this way, we put God’s love, faithfulness, and power to the test, while indulging ourselves in magical thinking, entitlement, self-righteousness, and self-deception. Instead of focusing on doing God’s will, we try to get God to do ours.

 

Trial 3

Finally, the tempter took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world . . . and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). According to the story, the devil had the kingdoms of the world to give because he, in some sense, ruled them. Interestingly, to worship the devil in this case meant to accept that he was the rightful ruler of this world and to endorse his methods and strategies. He was essentially saying, “Jesus, if you accept the world on my terms and play by my rules, then I can make you successful beyond your wildest dreams. But you must put your faith in me and do it my way.”

As odd as it might sound, “worshiping the devil” in this way this also is a temptation for us. We are encouraged to figure out how the world works and then leverage our power within this system to gain worldly success at the expense of others. If you can accept the brutal facts about how the world works, curry favor with the rich and powerful, leverage the right resources, and intelligently navigate the politics of it all, then you too can be the envy of all your friends and banish all your anxiety. This will require you to compromise or sacrifice some of your most deeply held beliefs and values, but the payoff is incredible!

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (4:10). When we are tempted to capitulate to the value system of the world and accommodate our lives to escape pain through the acquisition of success, Jesus says, “It’s a trap.” Worldly success does not magically heal your pain and make you happy. There are more miserable successful people than you might imagine, and while they appear to have everything you’ve ever wanted, deep inside you can hear the crickets chirping in their souls. Without deep spiritual transformation, they are invariably haunted by the question, “Is this all there is? Is this what I practically killed myself for?” (“Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

 

Illusions that Drive the Dynamics of Temptation

These trials of Jesus in the desert disclose three things that perpetually threaten to derail our journey toward transformation, and at their core they disclose the same compulsion: to escape discomfort. All of us are tempted in innumerable ways to leverage our personal power to escape pain, compulsively grasping for things and experiences that promise immediate relief. We do this by transforming God’s good gifts into various kinds of anesthetics, leveraging our relationship with God to force a divine magic trick, and sacrificing deeply held beliefs and values to attain worldly success.

But the temptations only work if are duped into accepting three assumptions.

  1. All forms of discomfort and pain are unproductive and bad.
  2. We can circumvent discomfort and pain and still get everything we want.
  3. There are shortcuts and magic tricks that if shrewdly applied will give us immediate gratification.

Of course, these assumptions are false.

Experience teaches us that not all the discomfort and pain we experience is bad. In fact, spiritual and emotional growth require us to abide with these feelings to learn the lessons they teach and to tend to the inner wounds that drive them. At the beginning of our Bible story, we read the words, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). Jesus was baptized by John and given a vision of his true identity and mission, and before his shirt was dry God drove him into the desert. Why? Because abiding in this lonely and uncomfortable place was necessary for him to become in reality what God had already declared him to be. Likewise, God leads us into desert places and exposes us to challenge and pain to create the necessary conditions for healing, freedom, and transformation. We cannot experience lasting change without working through our pain (which requires us to cultivate the virtues of longsuffering and forbearance).

Finally, experience teaches us that there are no shortcuts and magic tricks for receiving the gifts that make life worth living. It takes time to develop loving relationships. It takes time to develop character and cultivate virtues like faith, temperance, patience, kindness, humility, and courage, all of which are necessary for a truly happy life. It takes time to attain wisdom, develop our gifts and talents, and find the best ways to share them with the world. It takes time to let go of ego and live into the reality of your true self in the unity of all things. The tempter says, “You can bypass the pain and get it all now if you’re willing to misuse your personal power.” But, Jesus says, “Be true to yourself and faithful to the life which I have called you. Trust God’s goodness, faithfulness, and timing, and God will give you abundant life.”

And Jesus would know, because after enduring temptation, God eventually gave him everything the devil offered ahead of schedule (Robert Capon, The Romance of the Word, 192-195). The devil tempted him to turn a few stones into bread, and Jesus would later multiply two fish and five loaves to feed 5,000 people (by any account, a much greater feat). The devil promised relief from hunger, and Jesus would later feast with his disciples and talk about the heavenly banquet that he would host for all eternity. The devil promised the ministry of angels, but as soon as Jesus sent him away, “suddenly angels came and waited on him” (4:11). The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and a few years later God raised him from the dead and made him the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

If Jesus had taken matters into his own hands and used his power for immediate gratification, it would have corrupted the very gifts that God had promised and would have led to his downfall. But he waited for God and received them in ways that no one, including the devil, could take away. God promises the same to us. If we are willing to abide in a desert place, God will use it in God’s time and in God’s way to transform us in ways that lead to abundant life.

 

Challenge

How do you deal with discomfort? What happens inside of you in response to feelings like sadness, fear, loneliness, guilt, anger, anxiety, or boredom? Do you compulsively try to get out of pain, or have you learned how to stay with it long enough to get curious about the lessons it can teach? Do you distract and console or do you allow yourself to feel, reflect, pray, journal, and talk about it?

Which of the three strategies illustrated in the temptations of Jesus do you most frequently employ as an escape hatch? Do you misuse your personal power to transform the good gifts of God into anesthetics? Do you leverage your relationship with God in hopes of a divine magic trick? Do you abandon your most deeply held beliefs and values in executing strategies for worldly success? What would it mean for you to recognize at least some of your pain could be a pathway to spiritual transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the strength to abide in my pain long enough to learn the lessons that only it can teach.

 

(This post is the fourth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[1] The name of the person has been changed to protect his identity.

Radical Transformation: Introducing the Quadratos

I used to be significantly overweight.

There were several reasons for this, but one contributing factor was the habit of eating six fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies every night after dinner. Before I knew it, the scale was reading 226. This might not seem too bad since I’m 6’1”, but due to a small bone frame, my ideal weight is around 170.

For my body type, I was obese. This not only affected me physically but also emotionally. So one day I got fed-up and made a decision to change. I was going to lose weight and transform my health.

I started educating myself about proper nutrition and exercise, which helped me understand the specific actions I needed to take. When reading the experts, I believed what they were saying and, based on their suggestions, I created a change plan. I trusted that this plan would work if I acted on it daily. So I went to the gym almost every morning and did all the exercises the best I could, even the ones I hated like lunges (which are from the devil). I also ate healthy, properly portioned meals.

Through consistent, daily, disciplined action, I gradually transformed my body, going from 226 to as low as 156 . . . at which point my mother told me to eat a sandwich. Nevertheless, I was in the best shape of my life.

While I have never returned to 226, my weight has fluctuated over the years. The reason is simple: I stop working my plan. Sometimes I recognize that I’m gaining weight, which creates a desire to get fit. But my awareness and desire is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even make a decision to get healthy again. “On Monday, I’m going to start eating right and exercising.” But the decision by itself is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even return to the fitness and nutrition literature and create a new plan. But my knowledge and planning are not enough to transform me. I can even believe in my heart of hearts that the plan will work if I follow it. But my belief in the plan is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even take a step in the right direction by buying healthy food, rejoining the gym, and working my new plan for a couple of days or weeks. But these initial steps are not enough to transform me.

Transformation only happens when I put all these things together in a consistent way over a long period time, which is the whole point of a fitness plan.

 

Christianity and Transformation

Similarly, the whole point of Christianity is radical transformation. While Christians take comfort in knowing that we rest in the eternal care of a loving God upon death, being a Jesus follower is not primarily about dying and going to heaven. Rather, it’s about a radical transformation that happens over time as we daily follow Jesus, a transformation that makes us more loving, just, kind, compassionate, peaceful, and joyful. In this way, we enjoy life to its fullest and become a blessing to others.

Jesus says in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Likewise, in Ephesians 4 we are called to renounce our former way of life, our old self, and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. This is an invitation to a new way of life, which leads to a new self.  

Being a Christian is about being a disciple; being a disciple is about being a follower; and being a follower is about learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in our daily lives until we draw our last breath. This is the path to radical transformation—what the tradition calls sanctification—and there are no magic pills or shortcuts.

This means that being a Christian cannot be reduced to an awareness, for example an awareness of our need for God. It’s not simply about confessing sin in a moment of heighted guilt, or even believing that Jesus can save us. Nor it is about giving intellectual assent to a set of biblical or theological propositions, like when a church gives you a checklist of religious claims and says, “If you can tick-off all the boxes with a clear conscience then you can join our tribe.”  Christianity is not about becoming a member of a church. You can do all these things and still not be a true follower of Jesus. You can do all of this and still not experience radical transformation.

Why? Because Christianity is a way of life under the Lordship of Jesus the Christ. The earliest Christians were called “Followers of the Way,” referring to the way of life Jesus revealed in his life, death, and resurrection. Being a Christian is about deciding every day to completely surrender our will and lives over to the care and guidance of Christ. This decision is manifest in action as we learn more about Jesus through diligent study and prayer and practice these teaching in our daily interactions. This is a long, challenging, and even messy process, with many ups and downs, successes and failures. Sometimes it feels like two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back. But if we dedicate our lives to learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus and keep moving forward then we are promised radical transformation. To hope for anything less is to embrace a partial or false gospel.

 

The Quadratos as a Guide to Transformation

Fortunately, we are not without guidance on this journey toward transformation. We have scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to help us. Regarding scripture, we are gifted with the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which contain the core teachings of Jesus.

While there are different ways of reading these Gospels, one that is particularly helpful is called the Quadratos (Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind, 2017). This interpretive tool helps us see the Gospels as a fourfold path to transformation, disclosing four major movements in the life of faith.

The first path begins with the Gospel of Matthew, where we are reminded that human beings desire permanence and resist change. Nevertheless, the world is in constant flux, and at various points we all experience significant change and loss, which evokes fear, betrayal, grief, and confusion. If we don’t handle these experiences wisely, they can throw us off-course on our journey. Facing life during significant change requires new spiritual resources, which the Gospel of Matthew helps us cultivate.

The Second path of the journey continues with the Gospel of Mark. In the first path, we are called to confront our fears and insecurities in the face of deep change, but as we continue to the second path these fears and insecurities fight back. The Gospel of Mark speaks to people who are undergoing intense emotional and spiritual suffering, people who are feeling isolated and abandoned. This season of life is like crossing a stormy sea or walking through an arid desert, but Christians have the Gospel of Mark to help them move through suffering on the journey to transformation. This is by far the most painful and difficult path of our journey.

As we faithfully follow Jesus, he leads us through change and suffering with the promise of great joy, which is the fruit of the third path revealed in the Gospel of John. As we remain faithful through the difficulties and missteps of the first two paths, God gives us times in which we experience the joy of intimate communion with the mystery of the world. These are sometimes described as unitive experiences, where we feel the oneness of all creation in the deep embrace of the divine. While this ecstatic experience is difficult to describe, people universally speak of a profound sense that everything—the totality of reality—is a pure gift of grace, which generates a deep sense of gratitude. This season of life is like resting in beautiful garden, and the Gospel of John helps us to recognize and receive these moments of joy in ways that are generative and productive for our journey.

But experience teaches us that we cannot stay in the garden. After receiving the joy of intimate communion with God, we are called to walk the road of loving service and to share our gifts with others. We are called to the fourth path revealed in the Gospel of Luke. Through patient trial and error, we learn to author our own life in service to others, especially those around us who are most vulnerable and needy. Filled with new energy, excitement, and perspective on the third path, we step out of the garden of John into the gifts and challenges of daily life. As we remain in the courage of our journey, we find more joy and transformation than we ever thought possible. On Luke’s fourth path, we are shown how to cultivate patience, faith, and equanimity. Our hearts and minds are reshaped by humility, compassion, and love.

It’s important to note that we do not simply walk these four paths once, but cycle through them repeatedly throughout life. This repetition is not a vicious circle but a spiral that moves us forward in productive ways. As we experience each part of the fold-fold journey, we learn important lessons, develop new spiritual and emotional resources, and acquire helpful tools, all of which, when integrated, help us mature. As a season of life returns (e.g., a time of seismic change or intense suffering) we experience it in a new way because we have seen it before and have learned important lessons. With each cycle of the four paths, we become wiser, stronger, and more courageous, all of which provides evidence for our ongoing transformation.

 

Challenge

As you pray and meditate this week, spend some time reflecting on personal experiences of significant change. What was the change? What feelings did it generate in you, both good and bad? How did you handle it? How did you get through it? What lessons did you learn? What did all of that teach you about facing change in the future?

 

Prayer

Gracious God, give us ears to hear your call to radical transformation and help us discern the first step of a new journey.

 

(This post is the first in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter three in Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

 

Staying at the Table with Enemies: Rejection and Reconciliation

(This is Pastor Mark’s Maundy Thursday meditation for March 29, 2018)

We live in a time of division and polarization. Our natural, albeit sinful, reaction is often to demonize those who are different and withdraw our friendship, which can make things very uncomfortable when we see each other at church. But church is the place where we are called to transcend our differences and work together to declare the good news that Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord, and to accomplish his mission of making more and better disciples for the transformation of the world in love. As we study the teachings of Jesus we see that there is no Christ without a cross, no resurrection without death, no discipleship without sacrifice, no salvation without suffering. We slow down during Holy Week to acknowledge these difficult truths, lest we run too quickly to the empty tomb and distort the gospel into another story of human triumphalism.

What’s surprising is that I am still surprised when people betray me, when people misrepresent my ideas or intentions, say hurtful things, push me away, write me off, or try to hurt me. This is especially true when the person is a close Christian friend. I am still surprised by the divisions around me and the division within. But when I return to the teachings of Jesus, I feel naïve because he told me to expect it.

Jesus knew that our struggle with division and disappointment was part of being human, part of journey of salvation, part of discipleship, part of sharing life together in community. Speaking to the early Christians, the author of Mark narrates Jesus saying:

You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (13:9-13)

Again, in Matthew 24:

Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom . . . . Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.

 Again, in John 15:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.

While these words were written to first century Christians undergoing persecution in the Roman Empire, they disclose the corruptibility of the human heart. Consequently, Jesus says, “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) This applies to all of us, regardless of the period of history in which we live, and experience teaches us that sometimes our cross comes in the form of betrayal.

Which raises an important question: How do we respond to people who disappoint and betray us? How do we handle being rejected, mistreated, abused, deceived, or even persecuted? Jesus helps us answer this question when he stays at the table with those who will betray him. The most obvious example is Judas. Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, but he still invited him to the Last Supper, included him in the teaching of the new covenant, and gave him the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation. Peter was there too, the one who said he would never deny Jesus but did so three times. Knowing this, Jesus still invited him to the Last Supper, included him in the teaching of the new covenant, gave him the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation. But it wasn’t just Judas and Peter who would walk away from Jesus. According to the synoptic gospels, as Jesus made his way to the cross all his disciples abandoned him. Only the women remain. Knowing that his friends would fearfully run into the shadows, Jesus still invited them all to the Last Supper, taught them about the new covenant, and gave them the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation.

And not only this, but Jesus also washed their feet. He humbly surrendered his position and power as their Lord, took on the role of a slave, and in an unimaginable act of lowly, intimate, vulnerable service, Jesus washed their feet. Why? To set an example of how to treat others, even others that will break our hearts. In this way, Jesus’ actions at the end of his life embody what he taught all along.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:38-48)

None of this makes sense in a world where we are told to hit back, holler back, and hate back; to reject, push away, disown people who hurt us. But Jesus is teaching another way. Knowing that violence begets violence, hate begets hate, rejection begets rejection, Jesus gives us a way out of the vicious cycle of destruction—love. As he makes clear in his teaching, as he makes clear at the Lord’s table, as he makes clear in the cross—the whole point of the gospel is reconciliation, and if reconciliation is always the goal then the only way to get there is love made real through forgiveness.

This does not mean having a close and trusting relationship with everyone. When people violate our trust, we sometimes redefine the nature of the relationship and draw new boundaries. After a major betrayal, things may never be the same again. Forgiveness is not pretending that the wrong never happened and blindly going back to the way things were before the violation. There should be natural consequences for bad actions. However, this is very different from striking back in kind with an angry or vengeful heart. In contrast, Christian discipleship requires us to relinquish our right to take revenge, to balance the scales with a tit-for-tat retaliation, or to harbor hatred in our hearts. We are called to forgive our enemies and to show them the love of God. Why? Because we cannot overcome evil with evil; we can only overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

So how do we respond to those who disappoint and betray us? We must eventually, with God’s help, find a way to forgive them. We must show them the love of God in the very least by being respectful and kind, even when they don’t deserve it—especially when they don’t deserve it. This is the only real hope we have for their conversation from hatred to love, from an enemy to a friend.

This is why Christians regularly gather around the Lord’s table to share Holy Communion, to declare and live these difficult truths. As we reenact the Last Supper in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus comes to us in a special way, a sacramental way, to forgive our sins so that we will have the power to forgive the sins of others, to heal our wounds so that we can be agents of healing in the lives of others, to reconcile us in love to God so that we can be agents of reconciliation to others—especially our enemies and betrayers. At the end of the day, this is what should distinguish Christians from everyone else.

How does this apply in your life? What does it mean for you to share a table with your enemies, to stay at the Lord’s table with people who have disappointed or betrayed you? This is certainly something worth pondering as we move from Holy Thursday to Good Friday in the holiest of weeks. Let us do unto others as God has done unto us.

For Christ’s Sake: A Pastor’s Response to the Parkland School Shooting

(Below is a revised manuscript of a message Pastor Mark delivered at First United Methodist Church Cocoa Beach on February 18, 2018.)

 Introduction

I want to begin by apologizing for not mentioning the Parkland school shooting during our Ash Wednesday service. As a parent of four kids, I just didn’t want to admit to myself that this had happened again. But as I read the names and ages of the victims this week, grief and anger washed over me, and I would be derelict in my duties as a pastor if I failed to say something about it.

Honestly, I’m a little anxious. While pastors are called by God to teach people how to apply the values of Jesus Christ to every aspect of life, many of us are reluctant to speak out when shootings happen because the surrounding issues are so politicized. Nevertheless, being a leader entails a willingness to speak from the heart, letting the chips fall where they may. This is especially true for pastors who follow a Jewish rabbi that was crucified by religious and political leaders for speaking truth to power.

I want to begin by honestly acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers. Although I have extensive training in interpreting the gospel and applying it to Christian life, I’m not infallible. I can only speak the truth as I understand it, humbly acknowledging that my perspective has limits and blind spots, just like yours. Second, I must admit that I sometimes fail to practice what I preach. I’ve encountered people with different opinions and reacted in ways that fall short of the ideals I long to espouse. However, if the precondition for casting moral vision is moral perfection, we are all in serious trouble!

The Problem: Everything is Politicized and Polarized

From my perspective, the biggest problem we face today is the inability to talk to each other and collaborate to solve our most urgent problems. Everything has been politicized and polarized.

Some of our most influential leaders are professional politicians, and their jobs largely depend on two things: pleasing their financial donors and maintaining the support of their political base. To protect these things, some sacrifice their own personal identity for their tribe. Both political parties develop their platform, which is the framework for thinking, speaking, and problem solving. Staying within this framework is a sign of loyalty, and loyalty to the tribe promises funding and political protection.

The boundaries of this framework are clearly delineated by professional speech writers, who carefully craft talking points on every issue that could potentially alienate the political base or financial donors. When engaged in public discourse, politicians often protect themselves by parroting these talking points over, and over, and over again. It’s rare when a politician finds the courage to deviate from the party line and speak from their heart, and when they do it often results in marginalization and political attack. In this way, heart to heart conversations and collaborative problem solving are actively discouraged.

Unfortunately, our politicians are not the only ones who have this problem. The Bible says that human beings are fallen creatures, and one implication is our penchant for tribalism. Instead of embracing God’s vision of unity, peace, love, cooperation, and community, we try to secure ourselves by forming exclusive associations with people who look, think, believe, and act like us. Instead of crossing dividing lines to unify people around a common vision of compassion (which is what Jesus did), we fearfully double-down on those dividing lines to protect ourselves from people who are different. In this context, we tend to gravitate toward black and white thinking in which the world is divided-up into insiders and outsiders, allies and enemies, which gives us a sense of belonging, clarity, and purpose.

Knowing that we all have a penchant toward tribalism, politicians on both sides leverage this to their political advantage. They welcome us into their tribe and, working through their spokespersons on cable news networks, train us how to properly respond to any given issue. Again, being a valued member of the tribe means staying within the boundaries of the party platform and repeating the approved talking points. Arming ourselves with memorized soundbites and treating those who disagree as enemies to be defeated plays right into our sinful nature.

All of this comes together to create a hostile environment in which everything is politicized and polarized. The name of the game is divide and conquer, and winner takes all. Conceding anything to the other side, even the smallest point in an argument, is a cardinal sin punishable by exclusion.

Tragically, when we can’t talk to each other, we start thinking that there are no solutions to our problems, which tempts us to capitulate to the status quo—even when the status quo involves repetitive and increasing violence. Since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, when Adam Lanza murder 20 first-graders and 6 adults, there have been 239 school shootings in the US, which resulted in 438 wounded and 138 killed. So, the most recent school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 deaths, is simply one of many school shootings. In fact, studies show that going back to January 2014 there have been an average of five school shootings per month. (Jugal K. Patel, “After Sandy Hook, More Than 400 People Have Been Shot in Over 200 School Shootings,” The New York Times, February 15, 2018)

Working Toward Solutions

As complicated as this issue might be, we cannot accept this as the new normal, and the very suggestion that there is nothing we can do about it should make us all mad as hell. There are things we can do, and to throw our hands in the air as helpless victims is nothing short of sin. We can and must act. As an American, as a Christian, as a parent, as a human being with a conscience, I believe that we should do everything in our power to curtail this madness. And while we cannot place all responsibility on the shoulders of our elected officials, they do have an important role to play as law makers. Everyone agrees, even Libertarians, that the most important job of government is to protect its citizens, and if our elected officials are not willing or able to set aside tribal politics to better protect our kids from gun violence, then we should throw them out of office and elect principled leaders who will.

Many argue that passing more restrictive gun laws will not eradicate school shootings. Pivoting away from the public policy debate, they say that gun violence is a “heart problem.” Since parents have the primary responsibility of teaching their children good morals, the solution is for parents to raise healthy and responsible kids.

There is some truth in this argument. Christians believe that children are a gift from God, and part of our responsibility as parents is to teach our kids about love, compassion, and respect for all people, including those who are rejected, outcast, or ostracized. We should teach them how to identify and process painful emotions like rejection, loneliness, grief, and disappointment. We should have ongoing conversations with our kids about bullying and conflict resolution and cultivate trust in the family so kids feel safe asking questions and sharing what’s on their mind. We should be attentive to red flags in their mood and behavior, which means limiting their privacy. We need to know their friends and the parents of their friends. We need to know what they’re doing on their electronic devices: what apps they are using; what they’re texting, snapchatting, and instant messaging; what they are posting on social media sites; what videos they are watching, songs they are listening to, and video games they are playing. Do any of these things normalize, encourage, or glorify violence and killing? Do any of these things violate our Christian values? If so, we have a responsibility to restrict their access and talk to them about our values. Parents also need to recognize signs of abuse, mental illness, and emotional trauma, getting their kids professional help when needed. And parents are wise to surround their kids with other spiritually and emotionally healthy adults who can have a positive influence.

However, simply focusing on better parenting will not solve the problem. We also need to make changes in our education system. Those who spend the most time with kids other than their parents are teachers. Since many school shootings are perpetrated by disturbed students (or former students), part of the solution will involve shifting our priorities in public education and better resourcing our teachers and schools. Many educators will tell us that the state has become so focused on standardized testing that they have little if any time to teach the kids anything other than what’s anticipated on the next test. But teachers need time for other important things.

They need time to share best practices on how to recognize signs of isolation, bullying, grief, anger, and mental illness in their students. They need smaller class-sizes, so they can get to know their students on a more personal level and better spot red flags. All schools need an efficient referral system and enough school psychologists on staff to triage and assess troubled students. Schools need resources and opportunities for effective bullying prevention programs, diversity training, conflict resolution, and character development. I also think that every middle-school and high school should have a resource officer on campus to deal with more serious problems.

But even this is not enough. Whether we like it or not, there are important public policy concerns regarding mass shootings.

Take for example mental health. Everyone agrees that when we see something we should say something. When someone notices a child exhibiting strange behavior or signs of abuse, trauma, or mental illness, they should try to get that child help. But counseling and therapy are not free. So, if we are going to talk about treating mentally ill or troubled children, then we must also talk about healthcare. It makes no sense to say, “Mental illness is a big part of the problem,” if mentally ill people don’t have access to treatment. It makes no sense for parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults to look for red flags, unless the family of the child can afford to get them help. So part of the solution is to make sure that every child in our country has access to behavioral health services (which means talking about health insurance). No child in this country who is struggling mentally or emotionally should be excluded from treatment because of money.

Finally, we must find ways to put aside our tribal politics so we can have rational discussions about improving our gun laws to curtail gun violence. I hesitate to even say “gun control” because most people assume they know exactly what the phrase means and compulsively start parroting the prescribed talking points of their political party. But when we resist this knee jerk reaction and create space for genuine dialogue, we see a broad range of agreement in our country about specific policy changes that would help reduce mass shootings. Recent studies show that almost 90% of both Republicans and Democrats agree that mentally ill people should not be able to buy guns. Over 80% of both parties agree that people who are on no-fly lists or terrorist watchlists should not be able to buy guns. Almost 80% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats agree on universal background checks (which would include closing the loopholes in personal and gun show sales), and a large majority of Americans agree on banning assault rifles and outlawing bump stocks. Still others agree we should limit the size of magazines and clips. (Ryan Struyk, “Here Are the Gun Control Policies That Majorities in Both Parties Support,” CNN, Updated November 6, 2017.) With these broad agreements between a clear majority of Americans, we should be able to revise our gun laws to make it more difficult for bad people to get guns and commit mass murder.

Are gun laws a panacea? No. Will stricter gun control prevent all gun violence? No. But this is no reason to throw our hands in the air and say, “Well, then, there’s nothing law makers can do about it!” That’s like saying, “If I can’t lose 50 pounds on my diet by tomorrow then what’s the point in trying to lose weight?” There are things our lawmakers can do to help to help reduce the death toll and they have a moral responsibility to do so.

As you can see, people on both sides have part of the solution, but these parts by themselves are not adequate for lasting change. We need people on both sides of the political aisle to bring their part of the solution so we can put all the pieces together for comprehensive reform. However, this will not be possible if money and tribalism render us morally bankrupt and destroy the possibility of collaboration.

 What About God?

While all the things mentioned above are important for addressing gun violence in America, there will be no lasting solutions with God. Human beings are not only physical and mental creatures, we are also spiritual beings. We are created in the image of God, and God desires an intimate relationship with each of us. It’s through this personal relationship with the divine that we find forgiveness and the overcoming of guilt; reconciliation and the overcoming of estrangement; joy and the overcoming of despair; peace and the overcoming of anxiety; unity and the overcoming of tribalism. It’s where we find healing and gain our true purpose in life beyond politics. It is where we learn how to love ourselves and others the way that God loves us. It is where we learn the true meaning of community and how to talk to each other and resolve conflict in healthy ways. It’s where the sacraments of baptism and communion erase all dividing lines and unite us under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

The church has an important role to play by creating communities of belonging, love, compassion, justice, and peace. Many people who perpetrate acts of violence feel misunderstood, isolated, and outcast. They don’t believe that anyone cares about them or that their voice really matters. If the church will create communities of love where people feel genuinely accepted and heard, a place where they can honestly share what’s on the hearts and minds, without judgment or ridicule, then it can play a unique role in healing some of the pain that drives people to kill. When considering school shootings, this is particularly true for our children and youth programs.

Going even further in this regard, the church could help by refocusing on the teachings of Jesus regarding compassion for the lonely, outcast, and rejected. Jesus calls his disciples to reach out in love to these people and offer good news of forgiveness, healing, love, and friendship.

Finally, as United Methodist Bishop, Ken Carter, suggests, we can repent from our participation in a culture of death, grieve with those who are suffering, and pray for the families of the victims. But as important as it is to repent, grieve, and pray, we must not neglect to act. For Christ’s sake, for the sake of the gospel, we must act.

Call to Action

Bishop Carter is inviting all United Methodists to write letters to our government officials, state and national, to insist that they prioritize the safety of our children amidst repetitive and escalating violence. You can find their names and contact information online by doing a Google search for “Florida Elected Officials.” If members will write letters and place them in addressed envelopes, our churches will cover the cost of postage and put them in the mail. The Bishop’s vision is for United Methodist Churches across the state of Florida to collect and send 5000 letters.

(Access the sermon on YouTube and iTunes)

Further Reading:

Bishop Ken Carter’s statement on Florida school shootings.

United Methodist Book of Resolutions, “Our Call the End Gun Violence.”

Pastor Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”