When S___ Happens Lent 1 2015
2 Corinthians 8:10-12; Mk. 9:31-36
The Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert did a study contrasting the present and the future that was revealing. When we ask people to describe their lives at present or in the near past, people tend to describe their lives in equal parts. About half of the things that are going on around us at any given time, make us happy and about half of the time, things going on around us make us unhappy. This is not an objective measure, it is how we report our lives to others.
But here is what is interesting, when we describe the future to researchers and project whether we will be happy in the future, more than two thirds of the time, we predict that the future will be rosier. We envision many fewer bad things happening in the future than are happening around us right now. There is something illusory about human nature that is inveterately hopeful about our own futures. We just think that things will somehow all work out.
Perhaps this is really the spiritual genius of the season of Lent. It is a realistic corrective to that overly optimistic view. It is a reminder that we will ultimately have to suffer and most certainly we will one day die. Today we live lives that are so much longer and so much more fulfilling. But we still come with an internal expiration date.
I’m fairly certain the reason that Lent is so long and prominent in the Church calendar is because until about 100 years ago, with the advent of modern medicine, people lived lives that were “nasty, brutish, and short” as Thomas Hobbes observed. Dealing with suffering occupied a much more prominent place, more immediate concern. Today we observe Lent lite because we live so much longer and so much better.
The truth is that the second half of our lives is still quite a bit about suffering and loss and this is truer the longer we are fortunate to live. In the second half of our lives, our deeper fulfillment is so much more contingent. We have so many people that are dependent upon us, our family, our friends. And we suffer along with them in compassion. As the saying goes, “A mother is only as happy as her most unhappy child”…
I think of my fraternity brothers, when we get together and play golf for a long weekend every year. Most of the time and energy we expend just trying to beat each other and acting like we still haven’t quite graduated from college.
But one of them has a child that had a serious brain tumor that had to be treated when he was young and re-treated and re-treated again. That son is doing his residency now, just out of medical school. But I can tell from talking to his Dad that his mother worries about him all of the time. She is a physician too and she knows that it could flare up in the future. And I know that his Dad spends a lot of his actual time soothing his wife’s worries, day in and day out, week in and week out.
And another one of them has a daughter that was vivacious and bubbly as a child. Shortly after college she was involved in a car accident. Through her recuperation, she was taking pain medication to help her with her therapy. She kept taking it and kept taking it, and after a couple years, was addicted and just able to do about half of what her vivacious self used to do. Her marriage came to an end and she was in rehab for quite a long time and then in a half-way house for quite a long time. And I know that her Dad spends a lot more time now than he every planned, not just being a grandfather for her two children, but more like raising them for the past couple of years, as she was getting back on her feet. And I know that her Dad has spent a lot more money on drug rehabilitation than he ever anticipated having to spend, getting her well.
And another one has a son that made some really poor decisions during his freshman year party phase. Alcohol was involved, cars were involved, someone was hit and died and his son is awaiting trial and will most certainly do some time in jail. And I know that his father has really been struggling trying to wrap his mind around that reality and has really had a tough time dropping the projected arc that he had for his son’s life in light of this tremendous detour, not to mention the anguish he has interiorized about the harm his son has brought another family, and the sheer embarrassment of having all his neighbors wondering about the situation.
And a couple years ago, one of our college friends died from cancer. Despite all our connections and getting him the best medical care available, despite lining up the experimental studies when the normal things weren’t working. Despite an amazing show of resources, and people stopping what they were doing to help out, we couldn’t save him. I remember standing around his grave in South Carolina after all the funeral was over, having one last whiskey with about 8 of us. Religious or not, all of us had learned to pray at late mid-life. If you are lucky to live long enough, you just have to learn how.
Because if you are lucky to live long enough, you just have bad stuff happen around you to your friends, their kids, stuff you can’t control even in our era of remarkable control. It breaks your heart, stops you dead in the middle of your day, whether you want it to or not.
I’m really not sure how we got the idea going that if you are spiritual enough or you are religious enough, that somehow bad things don’t happen to you. It is true that we read passages all of the time that God looks out for us, like Psalm 121, that says ‘God will protect your going out and your coming in from this time and forevermore’. God is fundamentally good supportive. But that doesn’t mean that life isn’t going to take its natural course and that you aren’t going to get sick and eventually die one day that sickness won’t leave and all of us will die.
We are not miraculously exempt from the power of tornado’s, the bitter cold of the artic air, the new strain of bacteria that we don’t have antibiotics for, or the random violence of terrorism that besets our era.
In the Gospel of Mark, we have the scene we read today repeated three times. Jesus tells the disciples that they will inevitably suffer if they follow after his way. And each time, the disciples respond by getting into an internal dispute with each other about who is the greatest among them, who is the most important.
In this scene, Jesus responds by saying that the greatest is the one who serves others. It is the one who loves the most and the more that you love, the more that you will know the suffering that comes from compassion towards those that you love. That pain we feel when a loved one dies is the price we would gladly pay for the privilege of love. If you love deeply, you will know that deeper pain, plain and simple.
The disciples are depicted as boneheads that don’t get it. And we are they. We get it but not really, until we are there in the midst of a tragedy.
In chapter 10, Jesus again tells them that he has set his face towards Jerusalem and that he will suffer in Jerusalem. And right after that, the disciples ask him if he will appoint who will sit on his left and who will sit on his right when he comes into his glory.
Of course, us dear readers know that when Jesus comes into his “glory”, he will be hanging on a cross at Golgotha. We know that when he comes into his he will have two felons on either side of him. And they won’t be sitting on regal thrones, but hanging in agony from a cross.
So Jesus says to the disciples that are so worried about their position and their prestige, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I will drink, or to be baptized in the baptism with which I will be baptized?”
That question, of course, is posed to each of us. Are you spiritually prepared to endure the injustice and suffering and hardship that is actually involved when you make yourself vulnerable to others in self-sacrificial love.
A Mother’s suffering love, the way she cares for her child all the way to the grave. It is profound but it is not romantic. It may even be redemptive but it is not anything that any of us would ever want to live through for any reason.
Jesus even went out of his way to tell people that if you really follow after him, you will most assuredly suffer in this way. The way of vulnerable love is just like that. We don’t seek suffering. We actually pray to be relieved from it.
But God teaches us that through the love that opens us to that deeper suffering, we can not only endure it, the human spirit can transcend it and make it meaningful. Even our suffering can become redemptive.
Whoever said that God never sends us more hardship than we can bear, apparently never had to bear very much hardship. We most certainly can be overwhelmed.
After the war was over, Viktor Frankl, did the math about surviving the concentration camp experience. It was 1 in 28. At Auschwitz it was even lower. He managed to be one of the 1% of the people that actually survived at Auschwitz to tell about it. In his very sobering account, he is clear that 2/3’s of all the inmates that came through the Auschwitz were either reduced to their animal instincts- that is they were reduced to just keep alive and lost all conscience and simply betrayed people around them to save themselves. Or they just lost their will to live and one day refused to get out of bed no matter what torture awaited them. They gave up and just died.
The few that were able to keep their humanity and make it on through had some higher spiritual vision that they were living for. Frankl himself had the hope of being reunited with his wife whom he deeply loved and the hope of finishing a book that he had started. He was able to take himself out of the misery of his surroundings by focusing on images that he remembered from the touching moments of his marriage. Alternatively, when he was enduring the monotony of grueling and aimless work, he would try in his mind to remember what he had written on his most recent book. Having no paper, he would write the chapter again and again in his mind, obsessively. They would not take this from him. And focusing on that book helped to keep him distracted and it filled with a purpose to endure, no matter what.
There were so many arbitrary things that happened to him, most of them made his prospects of actually surviving more and more remote. But through the irony of history, so many of these arbitrary and bad things actually ended up becoming together the very way that he made it on through. His story reads like Yossarian in “Catch-22”, a series of bad things leading to worse and one day when it can’t get any crazier or more bleak, the Americans open the gates and the nightmare is over.
But for him, there was actually another wave to come, even after he won his freedom. After it was all over, he discovered that his wife had died through the experience. The very thing that he had been living for was not there and the lonliness and the sadness of that almost did him in. I’m sure that it almost did him in because he could never write about it. It was just too much to bear.
And he could have become cynical about the ironies that are heaped up in the shrapnel of war like Kurt Vonnegut. Instead, he embarked on a quest for meaning that attended the rest of his life. And he was guided by one of the foundational insights of our tradition that life is precious and wonderful, even at its most marginal and compromised moments.
He would ask himself, “I’ve lived through this horrible suffering and I lived, what am I supposed to do with this experience? What is it that I should do and say, not just for me, but for all those that did not live to speak? What is my purpose now?
And that is actually the profundity of the season of Lent in our lives. It is not about giving up chocolate to lose a couple pounds. It is about giving up something small that you love, to remind you that you won’t always be able to enjoy the things that you love. It is about reminding us that we have only a finite amount of time left on this earth and to fill that remaining time with the meaning and purpose that come from giving ourselves to others in love.
It is about taking some stock of our lives, about remembering that all of the stuff that has happened to us in the past has been taken up to make you who you are, for better and worse. I hope for you in this season that you will remember your wounds, that you’ll remember the things that you have suffered that mangled you, perhaps they nearly did you in. I hope you’ll reflect on them, that you will let them ferment in your soul. Having been through all of that, what is it that you can give now that you’ve gotten to the other side in one piece? How have you grown, in a way that you probably didn’t even want to grow, but you did anyway? What good meaning can you distill?
As you embark on that quest, may you be surrounded by people that will empower you with God’s redemptive love. May they reflect that to you in their acceptance, their understanding and their strength. Through it all, you are God’s beloved child. Your life is a wonder and a mystery, in spite of the trial that was laid upon you. Peace be upon you. Amen.