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by Tony Grant
Some 24 years ago, my father died. I thought I had the spiritual foundation to handle grief and loss; after all, I was a minister of the gospel; however, when I received that awful phone call, I collapsed as if someone had taken all the air out of me. They say, "We process grieving." That is not the way it works. We do not process grieving; grieving processes us.
On September 11, 2001, we learned we could grieve for people we had never met. When I heard what had happened to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I was in shock and in tears. I know that you were too. Grieving is an emotional reaction that overwhelms us, all of us.
Peggy Noonan, writing for The Wall Street Journal, comments on a scene in Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down." The movie is about the Battle of the Bakara Market in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993. In one scene, the actor Tom Sizemore, in the role of a hard-bitten U.S. Army Ranger colonel, is in command of a small convoy of Humvees trying to get back to base with mortar and rocket fire exploding all round. In this violent vortex, the colonel stops the convoy, brings some wounded on board, throws a dead driver out of the driver's seat and yells at a bleeding sergeant who's standing in shock nearby: "Get into that truck and drive." The sergeant replies, "But I'm shot, colonel." The colonel yells, "Everybody's shot, get in and drive."
Peggy Noonan is struck by those words: "Everybody's shot." They suggest a metaphor for life. Everyone has taken a hit, everyone is hurt. We are all walking wounded. But we do not always know this. Rosie O'Donnell, often refers to the fact that she lost her mother when she was a child. "This of course is very sad," Noonan reports, "and Rosie has spoken of its sadness very often, and with a great whoosh of self-regard. Her sympathy for her loss made me think the other day: She doesn't really know that other people lost their mothers when they were young. She doesn't really know that some people never even had mothers. She doesn't know everybody's been shot."
In the movie Star Wars, the robot C3PO says, "Oh, we are made to suffer. "It is our lot in life." Many of us would agree with that simple axiom. From losing a loved one to standing in a grocery line for 15 minutes, we suffer. We suffer during a boring conversation, and as we watch images of refugees fleeing war-torn Kosovo or typhoon-devastated Bangladesh. Even more certain than death and taxes is suffering.
The apostle Paul affirms that same truth: Everyone suffers. He even argues that inanimate creation "groans," awaiting that day of future redemption.
For Norman Sleep, a professor of geophysics at Stanford, who has presented his theory to the American Geophysical Union, the travail of creation is real. You may know that current theory is that the demise of the dinosaurs was brought about by the collision of a large asteroid with the earth. Norman Sleep expands that theory. The Stanford University scientist says that the Earth may have been repeatedly pummeled by asteroids between 3.5 and 4.5 billion years ago, snuffing out all early life. He argues that during long periods life repeatedly spread across the globe, only to be nearly annihilated by the impact of large asteroids. Just when a life-form is beginning to make some progressBAM--an asteroid knocks it back to the first chapter of Genesis.
The early Earth, Sleep says, may have been "an interrupted Eden"--a planet where life repeatedly evolved and diversified, only to be wiped out by asteroid collisions. When the surface of the Earth finally became inhabitable again, thousands of years after each asteroid impact, the survivors emerged from their hiding places and spread across the planet--until another asteroid struck and the whole cycle was repeated--which strikes me as very discouraging.
It is just a theory, but it is a reminder of how tough it is to live a meaningful life when you are shot, or when you live in an interrupted Eden--that is, a place where you know that at any moment you might get knocked back to square one.
In Romans 8:18, 22, the apostle Paul saw that periodic poundings were part of "the sufferings of this present time," and that "the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now." He would not have been surprised by news that people were being pummeled, because he himself was forced to endure imprisonments and floggings, beatings and stonings.
But in his letter to the Romans, he does not so much whine about today's sufferings as focus on future glory. Paul is not interested in grousing about the interrupted Eden he is experiencing on Earth. Instead, he sets his sights on the fully restored Eden that he anticipates enjoying in God's heavenly kingdom. Thus in v18, he says, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us."
Slavery vs Adoption
In Romans 8, the Apostle Paul moves from slavery to adoption. In v12, he says, those who have been freed by the Spirit are no longer indebted to the flesh. A slave is obligated to the slave master; he has no choice. A person freed by the Spirit is no longer under that obligation. The old master is no longer owed anything. Nevertheless, it is not easy to cast off the habits that were part and parcel of the old way of living under sin and death. The new kingdom life of the Spirit is not easy.
However, the believer, now freed, is part of a larger relational entity. No longer a slave, the believer is an adopted daughter or son (v.14). In the Greco-Roman world, legal adoption was much the same as in ours. No distinction was made in the law between adopted child and biological child; all children had the same rights and privileges. In God's family, we have the same privileges as Christ.
In verse 15, Paul returns to the concept of slavery to stress the difference between the old life and the new. When we were enslaved, we were under the control of evil and death. A natural response to being not in control of oneself, and under the rule of a malevolent master, is fear. The master of the slave has control of the slave and can do anything to the slave; hence, the slave never has any security.
However, on the contrary, Paul writes that as we are set free to live in the Spirit, we have a relationship with God that is intimate and trusting and good. The slave now freed and adopted can even call God "Abba! Father!" Abba is the Aramaic word best translated "Daddy." It was the word that Jesus almost certainly used when in prayer. Hence, Abba is a distinctive title that anyone who has been freed and adopted can use as well. Abba implies an intimate relationship. Hence, this new relationship with God is unlike the old relationship in every way. Abba is not arbitrary, but consistent, not harsh, but loving, not cold but intimate.
Hope in Suffering
The believer is a child of God, a brother or sister of Jesus, and therefore equally shares the riches of the kingdom as heirs (v.17). However, if we are fellow heirs of the future kingdom, we also share in the suffering of the present age. Paul here is responding to the unspoken question of his audience: "If we are children of God, if we can say, "Abba, father," why do we suffer just like those who are still enslaved to sin?" The answer: With the full promise of the future comes the full reality of the present. Believers as well as unbelievers get pounded by the asteroids of life--but believers have hope in suffering.
Kurt Warner, quarterback of the St. Louis Rams, prints his own trading cards. It is not an ego thing. The cards tell the story of how Warner became a Christian four years ago, shortly after tragedy touched his life. The parents of his girlfriend Brenda, now his wife, were killed when a tornado demolished their home in Mountain View, Arkansas. They had planned to be baptized that night, but stayed home because Brenda's mother had a headache. Kurt watched as Brenda, a Christian, responded to the tragedy with poise and grace rather than self-pity. He also knew how she had dealt with a crippling accident suffered by her son, Zachary, 8 years earlier. Brenda sat in a rocking chair next to Zachary's hospital crib for 17 days, watching as he suffered seizures, quoting Bible verses and asking God to perform a miracle. Although legally blind and brain-damaged, Zachary is now a fifth-grader who can read, gets around fairly well and takes mainstream and special education classes. Three months after the deaths of Brenda's parents, Kurt became a Christian. Two months after that he proposed to her, and he has adopted Zachary and her daughter Jesse.
Kurt Warner did not become a Christian because he thought only good things happened to Christians. He became a Christian because he saw how Christians could handle the hard knocks of life.
We can handle this life because we have things in perspective. The Apostle Paul challenges us to expand our horizons and place here and now in the context of eternity. We are invited to catch a glimpse of the "big picture." God, through Jesus Christ, has freed humankind. God, through Jesus Christ, is also effecting the liberation and redemption of the entire universe. It is not only persons who are enslaved, it is the whole creation. Paul suggests that the creation must wait for the redemption of the children of God before being completely redeemed. Hence the time now is one of waiting patiently, but not passively.
To describe the current situation, Paul uses the metaphor of a mother delivering a child. All creation is in the process of hard labor, and the contractions are coming faster and harder. We are caught up in the process, and suffering, of birth, but we must remain focused on that which is unseen. We must envision the end result and know that it is surely coming. This is Paul's definition of hope: believing the certainty of the Unseen God's promised end result in the midst of the muddle of the present chaos.
But we cannot see that promised end yet, and so sometimes we act like spoiled brats when we pray--or I should say whine--to God. We are like highchair toddlers who want to tell Mom and Dad how to run the household. We are five-year-olds in the car on the way to Disney World for the first time, crying silently with disappointment because Dad drove right past that little park with the big slide, and we thought that was Disney World. Even so, Paul says you cannot imagine what eternity with God is going to be like. Nothing here can compare with it, even in the slightest degree. No matter what you suffer here, it will not matter in the light of eternity.
Our hope then is that God is working actively against the powers of death, even as we get pounded by a variety of forces. God is constantly undermining the ability of evil to discourage and destroy us, and we tie our hope to God's promise of a new heaven and a new earth, where "Death will be no more; [and] mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4). It is an uninterrupted Eden,.
Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw invites us to practice resistance to the powers of death and destruction as we hope for this new kingdom. She urges resistance, active resistance, as a sign of our Christian hope. She tells the story of worship services in Latin America, in which protests against unjust deaths often form a part of the liturgy. In worship, the names of the deceased are read off one by one, names of persons who have often been brutally murdered. At the reading of each name, the congregation exclaims, "Presente!"
These loved ones are not gone, they are "Presente!"--present and accounted for! Their fellow Christians refuse to accept violent death as the last word on them. As part of what Scripture describes as "so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1), these persons are declared present to the living community of faith. How is this possible? Only through God's gift of life, a gift that triumphs over war, abduction, rape, abandonment, and even that last enemy--death.
We perform an act of true hope whenever we climb to our feet after we have been pounded by personal asteroids. It is an act of true faith to get up and shout, "Presente!"to make a bold statement of our belief that suffering is never the final word when God is at work in the world.
As people who are present to each other, and present to the goodness of God, we count ourselves as children of God. Paul points out that we suffer along with Christ "so that we may also be glorified with him" (v. 17). Our pains are never completely pointless if they bring us closer to the one who suffered on the cross for the salvation of the world.
Do not misunderstand. This is not to say that God desires our suffering, or that God somehow enjoys watching us get pummeled. No, the Lord invites us to join him in working to free the world from its bondage to decay, and to do whatever we can to overcome those forces that can divide, discourage, or destroy us. We may suffer as we do God's work of justice and reconciliation in this world, but suffering is not going to be the final word when we make it to the Lord's eternal Eden.
As we do this heavenly work, we do not work alone. The Spirit of God "helps us in our weakness," assists us in our praying and intercedes for us "according to the will of God" (vv. 26-27). This holy power comforts us and abides with us. It is nothing less than the Spirit of God that constantly reminds us that we are children of God, "and if children," says Paul, "then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ" (v. 17).
We are heirs of a world that is constantly being pummeled by the asteroids of economic instability, terrorism, warfare, hunger, and disease, heirs of a world desperately in need of acts of love, peace, and healing. But that is not all. We are also heirs of everlasting life in a kingdom that is not of this world, a heavenly home that God is preparing for us and for all who believe. We may still get pounded here on Earth, but as we are pelted by hardship we know we can survive, and even thrive, trusting that anything we suffer now is going to be wiped away by the glory to come. We can work and pray for the healing of this hurting world, always inspired by our vision of an Eden that is uninterrupted and eternal. Amen.
Benson, Etienne. "Geophysicist studies life in the early solar system." Stanford Report, December 14, 2001, news-service.stanford.edu/news.
Noonan, Peggy. "Everybody's been shot." The Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2002.
Pauw, Amy Plantinga. "Dying well," in Practicing Our Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 171.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 09/18/02