October 6th, 2016
. . .to be is the first good, the first gift of God’s gratuitous love, and the highest good is to be joined to God in the free movement of the soul.
David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea
Hart’s words there capture the thesis of the sermon last Sunday, our introduction to the series on Redeeming Suffering. Unless and until we grasp that highest good, we will be inclined to utter resignation when life struggles to reflect any of those clear intentions of God we found in Genesis 1; or we will let the comprehensive disruption found in Genesis 3 become a pretext for a despair that refuses either to participate with hope in life or to push back against all the forces that seek to steal it; or we’ll allow our sufferings of whatever nature obscure that surprising provision of God that saw fit to preserve that highest good through His own Son’s death that restored life. Jesus so grasped that “scale of value” that, “for the joy set before Him, he endured the cross, despising its shame.”
It’s a fair bet you’ll hear overtones of that idea throughout the series. The questions we’ll raise will vary with the storylines we explore. But they will all in a sense reiterate the necessity of seeing our suffering in scale as requisite to its redemption.
But one might interpret that call to see your personal suffering in eternal scale as a high-sounding way of saying, “things could be worse–get over it.” Neither the Bible nor Thomas Aquinas nor Eleonore Stump ever implies that we suppress our griefs by shaming ourselves for having them. Paul himself in that much-quoted encouragement to the Thessalonian church makes room for grief, but of a certain kind: “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
So seeing our sufferings in scale might be likened to what that proverbial person caught in quicksand must do to escape. Our emotions left to themselves–left, so to speak, without “supervision” from other notions meant to offer hope–are like that wet sand upon which you cannot put your weight. Emotions untethered to other ideas mire you in a position more precarious, more inclined to seal you within them rather than allowing you to work through them.
Take it from someone whose family had to say goodbye this week to a faithful friend of nine years (which is nothing compared to one of our elders who lost his father earlier this morning), unless you let your tears be accompanied by other thoughts (and words) of gratitude, of hope, and of the redemption still to come, your sorrows are well equipped to swallow you whole.
So seeing things in scale means, again with help from David Bentley Hart:
We Christians are not obliged . . . to attempt to console ourselves or others with vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning and purpose residing in all that misery. Ours after all is a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces – whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance – that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. . . . Until that final glory, however, the world remains divided between two kingdoms, where light and darkness, life and death, grow up together and await the harvest. In such a world our portion is charity, and our sustenance is faith, and so it will be until the end of days.
These are some of the thoughts we must let accompany our griefs. Then we mourn as those not without hope. Then we might feel Him drawing us out of the miry bog, our feet set upon the rock secure.
Among our challenges in this life, knowing what suffering is isn’t one of them. Still, having a working definition of what it means to suffer, if only both to understand why it takes the toll it does and also to know what we need to see it redeemed in us, is not wasted effort. So we appealed to that philosopher-theologian, Eleonore Stump, to provide us that definition.
But some may wonder whether philosophers are the optimal folks to consult when thinking about theological matters. Sure, many of our theological notions are constructed by terms and ideas borrowed from the world of philosophy. As only one example, John the Gospel writer’s use of the word logos to refer to Jesus was not a term he invented, but one he borrowed from the philosophical reflections of his day, thereby making the astounding and incendiary claim that the very fabric of the universe–its very wisdom–was contained in a person who walked the dusty byways of 1st century Palestine. So one cannot get far either in biblical interpretation or theological reflection without bumping into the territory typically associated with philosophy.
Still some wonder if the way God is spoken of in philosophical discourse is the same God as He’s portrayed in the bible. Stump knows that complaint well as someone who thinks and stands astride both worlds of inquiry, and here offers some helpful thoughts.
Finally, all that heady stuff notwithstanding, a couple things not so mentally taxing but just as important:
- The Mercy Cohort (MC) is collecting food for the DeSoto food pantry. They are looking for the normal staples of dry/boxed foods and canned goods, and in addition they are beginning to collect for the holiday season: canned green beans, sweet peas, chicken broth, cornbread mix, dinner rolls, & stuffing mix. They do not need cranberry sauce. Gifts cards are also appreciated. We will have a couple of bins by the welcome table to collect donated items beginning next Sunday, October 9.
- We’re pot-lucking it on October 16th. Details you can find here on The City. Bring food. Bring games. Bring a friend. The grounds of CES will be ours to recreate upon. (And if you don’t know what we mean by The City or have wanted to register but didn’t know how, you can email our beloved web-tech, Jonathan Raikes, or you can register right after worship on October 16th. The City is one way we all keep in touch and hold together.)