Church Write-Up: Suffering and New Life

Some items from the online church services on Wednesday and Sunday:

A. The Wednesday church service was about suffering. The youth pastor said that he did not want to talk about suffering, since it is such an unpleasant subject. He called the pastor, though, and the pastor said that he should talk about it, since everyone will suffer at some point. Sometimes, we can see good that came out of suffering. Sometimes, we bring suffering upon ourselves. The youth pastor brought in a bunch of stuff from the backseat of his car, thinking he could carry all of that, and he ended up falling after getting inside the door of his house. Adam and Eve brought suffering on the human race on account of their sin. Jesus, however, suffered even though he did no wrong.

I thought of two things:

—-The “everyone will suffer eventually” reminded me of an episode of “The Waltons,” entitled “An Easter Story.” Olivia is bedridden and paralyzed, so she may not be able to sing at the coming Easter service. Her oldest son, John-Boy, struggles to find where God is in all of this. His agnostic father does not offer him a theodicy but says: “You have to find your own answers, son. But the fact is that life has good times and bad. That’s the way life is.”

—-The “Adam and Eve” comment made me think of something Steve Hays said in his Triablogue post, “Plague and Providence”. He addresses the question of whether natural disasters existed before the Fall and answers in the affirmative: “Some Christians deny that natural evils or natural disasters preexisted the Fall. I disagree. I think they serve a necessary purpose to maintain the balance of nature. I think one effect of the fall is to expose humans to natural dangers that always existed, from the time of creation. In an unfallen world, humans would be divinely shielded from certain natural hazards, but due to the fall, God withdrew his providential protection.”

The question would then be whether God ever protects people in this day and age or consistently withholds protection. Roger Olson says that God may protect people sometimes in this day and age but not on a large-scale basis; that awaits the eschaton. In “Where Is God in This Pandemic?”, Olson states: “Personally, I do not believe that pandemics are directly God’s judgment, but with my theological mentor Wolfhart Pannenberg I do believe that they, together with all calamities, point to God’s absence. I don’t mean (and he didn’t mean) that God has literally ‘gone away,’ but that we humans, created in God’s own image and likeness, have shut God out of our world. Our hope (confident expectation) is that someday God will break down that door we have closed against God by our sinful rebellion, our collective decision to ‘go our own way,’ and remake this world. But that is not yet. There are signs of God’s future victory in Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in miracles of healing and in acts of deliverance of all kinds, but the whole of that victory is yet to come.”

B. The pastor’s sermon opened by talking about “The Sound of Music.” Maria is apprehensive about working with the von Trapps, but she reassures herself as she sings the song “I Have Confidence in Me.” “They will look up to me, and mind me!” But then she comes face to face with the grandeur of the von Trapp mansion, and her confidence vanishes. She feels overwhelmed. I thought about the times when I felt nervous in coming face to face with social encounters. I would be nervous as I tried to talk with people, or I would start getting resentful if people were not paying attention to me. Nowadays, Zoloft calms my nerves a lot. The social challenges (i.e., snarky people, my feelings of intimidation, unintentionally coming across to people in a way that puts them ill at ease) are still there, but the nervousness is not there as much.

C. On Palm Sunday, the youth pastor talked about frustrated expectations. He expected his team to make it to the basketball playoffs, but, now, due to Corona, it turns out that there will be no basketball playoffs this year. People expected Jesus to be a king as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey; instead, he was tortured and killed. I thought about how Corona overturned my expectations, albeit in a positive direction. I expected not to be able to attend the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, since I will be working on those days. Instead, due to the services being online due to Corona, I may be able to watch them (assuming they have services and those services are posted online for people to watch them later). I also thought about a comic on the site “Vridar.” A man complains, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” and a duck replies, “Nobody ever knows; this makes life interesting.”

D. The pastor’s sermon referred to an excellent sermon that he heard decades ago in which the speaker said that Christians are people moving from one place to another, as Abraham did. The pastor applied this to the Corona virus eventually coming to an end, but especially to Christian sanctification: Christians do not stay where they are but become more godly, due to where God brings them. The pastor also talked about how God brought life out of Christ’s suffering. Jesus in John 20 breathes on his disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit, and the pastor likened that to God bringing Adam to life in Genesis 2 by breathing into him: Jesus breathes new life into us. Jesus also said “My peace I leave with you” and commissioned the disciples to convey God’s forgiveness, and the pastor said that our homes perhaps can use God’s peace, especially if we are all isolated with each other right now.

I thought about an online group in which I participate (or actually observe). The participants are mostly “radical Lutherans” but includes evangelicals who are disenchanted by what they call “Glawspel,” the discouraging mixture of law and Gospel in pulpits today. Many of them would probably qualify what my pastor said. According to them, we need not look for internal signs that we are progressing spiritually or that God has infused into us “new life.” Rather, we trust God’s word that he has done so, is doing so, and will do so; we also participate in hearing God’s word of God’s forgiveness and the sacraments, which are means by which God does so. Many of them appear to present this as an utterly passive process, and I am not entirely on board with that. It does resonate with me, though, particularly on bad days, when I look inside and feel as if I have regressed rather than progressed in my love for God and neighbor (i.e., “I despise people and I do not care what God thinks about that!”), or when I cannot identify “new life” in my attitudes, emotions, and actions. God’s word of forgiveness is refreshing to me, however.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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