by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
19 November 2023
In the summer of 2022, during my sabbatical, I set myself the task of reading about climate change resilience, particularly focused on what resources, skills, practices, and approaches we will need as a community of faith to navigate well through this crisis that is coming more and more to affect our daily lives and will be the major global challenge for most of us to face for the rest of our lives.
Among the books I read was one entitled Words for a Dying World edited by Hannah Malcolm. The subtitle is Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church. Her contention is that a vital part of developing hope and resilience is to first face our grief over what we’ve lost and are losing. She closes her introduction by inviting the reader to be softened, to grow more tender through caring. She writes:
Adopting an orientation of grief means choosing to invest in things that are small, that are temporary, and celebrating them in the broken, fragile beauty they bear in the eyes of God. It is soft, cruciform foolishness.
Which honestly doesn’t sound all that different than some of what Paul writes, identifying his own sufferings with those of Christ on the cross.
One of the essays in Malcolm’s book is written by two South Africans, Peter Fox and Miles Giljam. One is a Presbyterian minister and the other works in public affairs. They write about how our listening to each other’s grief can turn us into witnesses:
As we listen, exposed to death and brokenness, we will feel anger, despair, frustration and rage. If we face these hard emotions, letting them pass through us as a rupturing reality, we may become vulnerable witnesses, able to heal wounds and emerge into a new identity.
They add that this process of being born into new life, will be painful.
Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi is written somewhere near the end of his ministry, when he is imprisoned. We aren’t sure if he wrote it from prison in Palestine or Rome or somewhere else (we know he was jailed many times). He seems to be in a deeply reflective mood, remembering these folks and their faithfulness to him and the gospel. The dominate mood of this letter is joyfulness—Paul rejoices in the Philippians, in his ministry, in the transformation wrought by the Gospel. Yet, in the midst of his rejoicing, he also reflects on his own experiences of suffering, and how they have contributed to the advancement of the church, often doing the opposite of what was intended by those who have oppressed him. In that, he feels a solidarity with and participation in the life and death of Jesus. And for that he gives thanks.
Christianity must be careful with how it handles the topic of suffering. We know the abuses to which such discussions have often been put over the last two thousand years. Particularly when the church has taught the poor, the enslaved, women, and children to accept their sufferings as part of their redemption.
That was always bad theology and spiritual practices. Fortunately, Christian theology has in the last seventy years come to terms with that toxic legacy and approached the topic differently. Sadly, it was the shock of the Holocaust and the reaction to it which finally led the church to confront its sins in this regard.
I like how the French radical philosopher Alain Badiou explains it. Suffering can never be redemptive, for pain and death cannot be the operation of salvation, the yes to life that is the good news.
I’ve mentioned before that the best class I took as an undergrad was “Evil and Suffering” with Professor Bob Clarke. That class formed and transformed my thinking on so many issues. And one of the blessings was that Wendy Farley’s book Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion was on the syllabus.
Farley identifies two types of suffering: meaningful and radical. Radical suffering is identified as the kind from which meaning cannot be made. It is affliction, in the worst, most painful, most soul-destroying way. And is very often visited on people by unjust and abusive power.
But she says that there is suffering from which meaning can be made, and that meaning is made through resistance, not endurance or acceptance. And there are two types of resistance. We resist suffering either by fighting it or refusing to let it dehumanize us. The best response, if we can do it, is to fight, to organize, to work to alleviate it and prevent it from ever happening again to yourself or to others.
But sometimes, we cannot fight it, “no practical change can be anticipated.” And so our resistance is manifested in refusing to lose our humanity.
How do we do that?
The queer biblical scholar Ted Jennings teaches us that Paul is repeatedly warning us that entering into the messianic life of the church means entering into distress. Trying to create a new humanity, a new way of living, in the midst of violent and unjust empire will be difficult, risky, and dangerous, like we discussed last week. Jennings says that the distress we experience is itself a sign pointing to the advent of the radically new. Which is one reason Paul doesn’t let his imprisonment get him down. He rejoices that even the jail time is a sign of God’s work, that even this is a witness to the world of the good news.
And so Jennings encourages a mental toughness that will not be cowed, a resolute endurance, and undaunted determination, which is how he describes the virtue of hope.
Which all sound like skill sets we need not only to face the climate crisis or war in the Middle East, but even the events of our own lives that try us—like unemployment, heartbreak, or cancer.
The Taiwanese theologian Choan-Seng Song has written powerfully about the relationship between hope and suffering. He characterizes hope as the affirmation of life, which echoes the yes to life of Badiou. In good Christian teaching we don’t find a justification or excuse or explanation for our suffering, instead we find solidarity, compassion, and encouragement. We find that God is with us, present in our suffering, suffering alongside us. We encounter God as the power that helps us to transform our suffering into hope. Song writes that a primary mission of the church is to spread the good news that hope is possible.
I’m moved by this statement of Song’s: “The courage to hope, which is given to us through Jesus Christ, is the dynamics that enables us to create our future out of our present sufferings. The future does not come to us, but we must go to the future.”
We must go to the future. What an uplifting, exciting, adventurous, inspiring idea! And we do that through cultivating these skills of resistance, and living with compassion, hope, gratitude, and joy.
Sometimes the problems of the world, much less of our daily lives, seem so daunting that we likely to despair, rather than to hope or to rejoice. But to succumb to that despair is to surrender our greatest strengths. Instead, we should be like Paul, who even in the midst of prison finds reasons to rejoice and give thanks.
Another book I read in the summer of 2022 was by the English theologian Timothy Gorringe and is entitled The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World. His book is precisely about what we must do in the mist of the climate crisis, and what tools Christian theology can bring to politics, economics, social services, and more.
In one chapter he draws upon the work of Rob Hopkins, who is active in an English movement called Transition Town that works to create resilient communities. Hopkins describes the work of climate resilience as “a creative, engaging, playful process” that helps us through our losses and inspires us to do new things. Hopkins adds that he “hopes to sketch ‘a picture of the future so enticing people instinctively feel drawn towards it.’”
I love this idea, that in the midst of crisis, instead of despair, we engage in creative, engaging, playful processes that inspire and encourage us.
In his own context, that’s what Paul was doing. Despite the difficulties, risks, and dangers that led to imprisonment and suffering, he focused on giving thanks and rejoicing, because he was part of God’s great mission to do something new, to create a new way of being human and living together.
And in our own time that challenge remains, even while it faces fresh and different crises. May we continue the work of Paul and our predecessors to be witnesses to the world that something better is possible— for "The future does not come to us, but we must go to the future.”