For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
For this week’s Spiritual Practice, led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE.
Let me pray for us.
Loving God, you have brought each of us here today to this moment, for a reason. We come into this space from many different places. Some of us, rushing in to hear the word, some of us with open curiosity, some of us with much doubt or even suspicion. No matter how we may find ourselves this morning, we pray that we may be honest to our hearts in this moment, and discover the love that you have poured into our hearts, through the spirit. we pray, in Jesus name.
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we[b] boast in the hope of the glory of God.
3 Not only so, but we[c] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;
4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.
5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Peace be with you. We have here our text today, a life of peace with God. It lays out a life description of movement from suffering to hope. From Suffering to Hope is the title of my sermon today, but how? How do I take you through from suffering to hope? Shall I make you suffer first?
I’ve been reading a book called The Book of Joy. It’s a book capturing a five-day meeting between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. For them, the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion is their utmost holy figure, a patron saint, a Christlike figure in the Buddhist tradition. Desmond Tutu is an archbishop, a Christian, in South Africa, a human rights activist and theologian notably during the time of apartheid in South Africa – which apartheid, literally meaning ‘apart-hood’, like neighborhood but ‘apart’. It “was a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa and South West Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s”. 90’s ya’ll, the 90’s.
After many seasons in my life of engaging suffering and grief, I needed some knowhow around joy. And not just fa-la-la joy, but true joy, deep joy. Grounding joy. Not busy distracting myself joy but peace-joy. And joy in the face of real injustice. Joy without ignoring the problem. Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it this way,
“Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”
Hardship without becoming hard. Heartbreak without being broken. Ooh I want that.
‘Cause joy that doesn’t answer to real suffering doesn’t really matter. So this book I thought maybe could get me closer, through two figures who literally have been exiled and fought the oppression of their own people. I wanted the secret to joy from folks who have been through some stuff.
If you haven’t suffered, it’s not a good idea to give advice about how to deal with suffering. No one can tell another how to deal with their suffering. But we do this all the time, to try to be helpful. We often try to offer solutions instead of just listening and validating their pain. The biggest no no is trying to give meaning or purpose to someone else’s suffering. And that’s where I want to start, what not to do with this text we have today.
I have two points. Point one: let’s not use this text to tell someone how to cope with suffering. And point two: if you get to witness suffering turning into perseverance, and perseverance turning into character and character turning into hope–that is a gift and miracle from God.
So point one. Churches, especially from places of privilege and power, have used this verse and verses like it to those who are suffering as a way to placate those who are oppressed. And while I do believe that this text has some meaning or value to offer, to jump to it as a quick resolution to someone in pain is not helpful. “Glory in suffering?” You want me to be happy about this bad thing that happened?
It’s unfortunately reminiscent of other texts in the Bible, which also has been widely misused, like
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ”
in Ephesian 6:5, along with,
“Wives, obey your husbands as you obey the Lord.”
in Ephesian 5:22. Which, by the way, most biblical scholars are fairly conclusive that Ephesians is a “deutero-Pauline,” a fancy way of saying that it wasn’t written by Paul.
Ancient writings in the style of their teacher was not an unusual practice. It was actually a way of honoring, continuing the great ministry and theology of Paul. But I’ll be honest, when I first learned that the first five books of the Bible weren’t written by Moses himself, and Paul has pseudo writers, I did experience a level of losing my faith going, “What! The Bible’s a fraud!” But, after you get through the initial shock and learn from professors who’ve spent decades studying this explain in detail how they analyze and interpret ancient texts like this, your faith expands and grows to be able to hold the complexity, the depths of human history and traditions that try to contain the mysteries of God in their lives. This is all the more reason why we should not use random verses out of context and apply it to our lives.
Don’t tell me suffering produces perseverance. Do you know what I’ve been through? You would make me persevere in this maddening injustice? Don’t tell me it produces character. I don’t want character. Let me do it to you and see if it builds your character. They say it’s like a metal in fire, getting stronger. Really, God? Why do you keep putting me in the fire? It’s hot.
Instead of changing our world of eradicating systemic injustice, we say, “what doesn’t kill ya, makes you stronger!” But the thing is, sometimes, it doesn’t produce perseverance. Sometimes it produces cynicism. Sometimes, it just hurts and keeps hurting no matter how long it’s been. It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder. Sometimes the burden is so heavy, the suffering so great and the problem so sophisticated and complex that instead of building character turns a person to depression. Sometimes, the suffering is so crippling and the trauma upon trauma so insidious that there seems to be no way out. Sometimes, suffering leads to hopelessness.
What do we do with that?
I don’t know.
The formula makes it seem like I need to persevere, build my endurance, fix my character, and then I can obtain hope. But even Paul, he wasn’t offering this as advice. He said, “we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.” It was a reminder of something they went through together. The whole text is in plural 1st person, we and us. He’s able to speak like this, because they know each other’s pain and have journeyed through it together.
If you happen to have experienced or know or have seen suffering producing hope, you know that it is not because of some straightforward formula, suffering + perseverance * character = hope. It’s because at every step of the way there was a thing called grace. In the midst of deep nonsensical suffering, a sudden gift of renewed strength. In the deep rock bottom of the void, a glimmer of a voice that said, “look up” that came from nowhere. In the places where you felt like you were just the scum of the earth, surrounded in your own filth with no motivation to pick yourself back up, someone came and grabbed your hand and lifted you up.
This is my point two. You know what stands out to me about this text? Not the formula part, that’s often most quoted and used. It’s the stuff around that text that undergirds it. It says “we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”
All of it is by grace. Grace, something undeserving. Something that doesn’t make any sense. It defies cause and effect. It does not compute. It’s not calculated, it has no reason, it’s not supposed to happen but it does. Grace.
Hope? Hope is not a product of suffering. The product of suffering should be something bad but hope, hope is a miracle. Hope is a gift.
Whether in your life or another person’s life, whether the suffering was self-inflicted or inflicted on them, all we can do if we see the miracle of hope at work in the midst of suffering is, be in awe.
How did that hope come about? It says it is “because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Not because we worked hard to get out of our suffering, but because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts.
We don’t get to tell someone to have hope in the midst of suffering because hope in the midst of suffering is a miracle and a surprise. All you can do is be in awe if it happens.
Again, it’s not a formula, but I will say, I have seen it. Suffering, that produces perseverance and stubbornness like no other. It’s almost scary to see, the drive in their eyes when you know they’ve known hunger. And character, whew the personalities that I’ve seen who’s been through some real crazy stuff, they are characters.
There’s a word I like in Korean, KKI. I’m not at all sure if this is at all the epidemiology of the word, but I think it defines the word well. It’s like, the Chinese word for energy, chi, which in Korean is gi, but KKI is like an extra cool factor energy, KKI. It’s kind of like the African-American culture of a thing called ‘swag,’ it’s just like style, like even in the smallest ways of how a person walks, how they carry themselves, how they talk. To me, that’s why I think of when I think of hope from suffering. Like where d’you get that? That kki, that style, that swag, that energy, I don’t recognize it, I can’t even name it, it’s just, you’re just in awe.
I love dance. Fun fact, I was in a hip hop dance team when I was in college. And in dance, especially in what you call street dance, these new moves that come out of literally off the streets like New York or the Bay area, that become so popular that they end up being picked up by pop stars years later. It happened with the “moon walk” with Michael Jackson and just about every other dance move you’ve seen on TV. The history of these dance moves many times come from, strife.
Take Voguing for example. You might’ve heard it from pop culture, Madonna had a song called Vogue. But it originates from Harlem dance clubs of Black and Latina gay and trans folks. The form is fun and powerful, drawing out so much confidence and strength when you try to do the moves. It’s a statement. It’s art. It’s defiance. It’s beautiful.
Another example is one called Turfing, from the Bay Area. Turf, which means Taking Up Room on the Floor. I can’t explain it. So here’s a clip. It’s four minutes but it’s such a beautiful embodiment and display of suffering producing perseverance and perseverance character and character hope that I’d like to yield my time of words and talking to just see it and feel it.
Take a look https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQRRnAhmB58
Here’s one of the comments from the video-
This the stuff that make a real one shed a tear, this video ain’t about dancing, it’s about mentally escaping a place you are physically in. East Oakland is as tragic as it gets, they filmed this after one of their Patna’s got murdered, you can feel their pain. Oakland made me tough but I’m glad I don’t live there no more. If you from the hood, it’s the goal is simple, get out and give back
Your suffering, I’m sorry that it happened to you, and that it can be hard. And if it’s been too hard that you can’t just look around and find hope, that’s not your fault. But I pray, that the gift of grace will be upon you, taking you through, and that the love of God may be poured into your hearts, that you may indeed, experience endurance and strength, resilience, that will build you up and make you into a beautiful image of God at full display like these guys, that no may what may befall, you will have friends you can smile and dance with, with power and freedom. May this be our life in the spirit. Amen.