Week Two: February 21-27
Read John 16
You will have pain like a woman in labor…but you will forget in time (16:21). Or so goes the saying but as a male it is certainly beyond my ability to personally know this is true for a fact. I also cannot tell you that having kidney stones is as painful as giving birth. What I can say in my experience is that having kidney stones is extremely painful.
My first kidney stone rodeo jarred me out of sleep in my bed in New York. It was a gas pain like no other and it would not pass. Admittedly I am stubborn when it comes to going to see a doctor or the thought of going to the emergency room. After a good twenty minutes of moaning in my bed, Jody was able to talk me into heading to the ER. I was so glad when they hooked me up to some pain relief medicine. Let’s just say that it was a painful path to get to that point.
Round two. In 2004, my daughter Amanda and I were in Miami where I was checking out a venue for a possible future national conference. While we were there we did take in South Beach where there was some topless sightings. The next day in early afternoon I began to experience some annoying gas pain. It refused to pass! Finally, Amanda convinced me that I needed to see a doctor.
After hailing a taxi, Amanda and I were whisked off to a local hospital emergency room. First of all, while I was off in the emergency room, Amanda sat in the waiting room of a hospital where English was a secondary language. This was quite unnerving for Amanda as ambulances backed up to the emergency door with victims who has been shot, stabbed and needed medical attention.
Meanwhile in the emergency room, I waited to see a doctor while I lay on a bed in a room with several other patients. Here is the truth: in lots of different ways I am loud. When the stomach flu hits, I get sick loud. When I have kidney stones, I moan loud. My eyes flew open when another 20-year-old patient stood over me pointing at me and said, “Shut the (blank) up or I will kill you!” In a quick shift of thinking, I began to practice Lamaze breathing techniques. What a relief it was to be taken shortly out of the ER to hospital hallway where a pain IV drip was put in my arm and in time the stones passed.
Life never stops even when our own life is so consumed with crisis. Back home in Illinois, Jody was busy entertaining her five sisters on her oldest sister Nancy’s Red Hat Society weekend (a celebration ritual when women turn 50). While I was groaning, Jody was dancing. Later, hearing we had been to South Beach, Jody said that my kidney stones were God’s judgement for risking an eye on topless women! At least I wasn’t turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26)!
I am not making a comparison between the pain of childbirth and kidney stones. The writer of John however makes a comparison between the pain of childbirth and Christian persecution (15:20-22). While in time a mother looks past the pain of birth-giving because of the joy of the baby so too the joy of the Lord will surpass the pain of suffering for the faith. Having never given birth nor suffered in any significant way for my faith, I really cannot comment.
Chapter 16 begins and ends with theme of suffering for the sake of faith. At the outset of the chapter, the division between the synagogue and the church has already occurred in the life of John’s community (16:2; see 9:22 as well). At the end of chapter 16, Jesus describes the scattering of his followers after his death (v. 32), and the prophetic announcement of the persecution of the early church (v.33). The powerful reminder is that Christ has won the victory so his followers, his church should take courage in that fact.
Because Jesus has suffered and died for the sin of the world, as followers of Jesus we should not be surprised if we experience suffering for our faith. Suffering can happen to any human on a personal level: accident victim, failing health issues, death of child or a loved one, for example. Pain and pleasure are part of the human experience of life. This type of suffering can be the result of our choices, the choice of others, a random accident or simply an unexplained random occurrence. As real as this suffering is in our life, it is different from suffering persecution.
Persecution of any type is a different matter. Whether the persecution is based on a person’s race, nationality, political views, sexuality, or religion, it is an action of hatred and hostility perpetrated by people assuming superiority and using power to oppress and abuse. Blinded to injustice and swallowing the rhetoric of the Empire, millions upon millions of innocent people have suffered violence, imprisonment and death. Christians suffering for their faith is part of this historic persecution.
If we fail to honestly look at the history of persecution and understand its root causes, it may repeat itself in human history resulting in suffering and death. When power over others is seized or given, if there are no checks or balances in place to prevent the abuse of power, our history as humans tells us that the risk of the abuse of power is not far from our door. The story of slavery and its aftermath in our own country is proof. World War II saw Christians imprisoning and killing Jews and Christians. Martin Luther sided with the princes which resulted in the suffering and death of many Christians who were peasants.
Unfortunately, atheists will point to these wars and killings involving Christians and even in the name of the church and say this proves that religion is corrupt and futile. Anything that imperfect people touch has potential for harm. Power unchecked is often won over by greed and injustice results.
At the same time, God takes human imperfection and molds and makes people with the potential for hatred and transforms them into people of compassion and love. Mother Theresa was an imperfect human who God used to give great compassion to women and children living in great poverty in Calcutta. As she grew in Christ she bore fruit of love. Martin Luther, while he made some costly mistakes, was instrumental in a movement that helped to give access for people to the Word of God in their own language so they could know and understand the teachings of Christ and dwell in him.
The coalescing of power, the harnessing of greed and allowing the fear of people different than ourselves has fueled much of the painful history of humanity. Organizations and institutions can be organized or serve as instruments for good or for harm. The problem of exercising domination on other humans emerges from our sinful human nature and not from God. The church is an institution designed to serve God and others. When our eyes are on God and how God calls us to live, accountable and with healthy checks and balances in place, the church as a faith community has launched hospitals, hospices, care centers for orphans, widows, and the elderly. Churches have organized volunteers to travel and rebuild homes, hospitals and communities that have suffered from natural disasters. There is much about the story of the church that is good and worthy of being celebrated.
It is when people and organizations do not have systems of accountability and balance in place that power, greed and fear can do damage. Our history as humans with its stories of power, greed and fear do not prove that there is no God. Rather, it shows that humans have the potential to be corrupted. The good the church has done in history far out ways the bad. With proper systems in place, the church can be both a witness and an advocate against injustice in our communities and world. To stand up with our sisters and brothers against injustice is a loving action. It is a courageous and right action.
In chapter 16 Jesus draws our attention to his upcoming departure, the suffering and persecution that will follow and the Holy Spirit he will send to us as believers. Even in the presence of suffering for the faith, Jesus reminds us that he will give us joy in his presence even in our hour of despair (v. 22). It has been my experience that some of the most joyful Christians have also been some of the economically poorest people. From Ethiopia, to Tanzania, to Mexico, it has been my amazing joy to receive unbelievable hospitality and generosity from joy-filled Christians living in very humble settings.
Jesus encourages us in the faith practice of prayer (vv. 23-24, 26). Praying and asking in Jesus’ name is petitionary prayer which represents one of the most common expressions of prayer. In this prayer form we bring our prayer requests to God. Another form of active prayer where words are spoken is intercessory prayer where we bring prayer petitions to God on behalf of others.
In addition to active prayer focused on words is contemplative or listen prayer which is attentive to God in silence. Repeating a phrase found in the Jesus’ Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, can quiet the heart and mind to sit attentively in the presence of God. Awkward at first for most people, with practice and persistence the presence of God becomes a source of true peace.
Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as our guide, teacher and source of information about future things (16:12-15). Jesus could be referring to Spirit-filled prophets in the congregation through whom the Holy Spirit speaks. Or, he could also refer to listening prayer where like Samuel we listen for the inner voice of the Holy Spirit after praying: Speak Lord for your servant is listening (1 Samuel 3:9). Day by day as you pray and wait on God practicing listening prayer, be attentive to what God brings to mind.
- What are your thoughts on the impact of root sin like power, greed and fear in our world?
- What do you see the role as Christians and the church regarding injustice and suffering?
- What are you learning and seeking in your prayer life?