The Gift of Suffering

When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

(Matthew 24:3-8)

This past Sunday, I pointed out that the word “passion” comes from the Latin root “pati” and literally means “to suffer” or “to endure.” Then, in my devotional reading for today from the Henri Nouwen Society, Fr. Nouwen reflected on the fact that the word “patience” likewise shares the same root. “Patior” is what it means to suffer waiting much like the process of giving birth … the painful experience of waiting that mothers experience in brining new life into the world.

It is more than the hyper-anxious waiting we see in children awaiting Christmas … or a birthday … or a family vacation with their favorite cousins. It is a painful waiting that is as full of uncertainty as it is promise. It is the waiting that we wish we did not have to endure. It is something, as wisdom would teach us, that leads to a greater unfolding reality yet which lead us through the cycle of greater integration.

Order, disorder, reorder. Life, death, resurrection.

It is the chaos … the disorder … the death that is so hard. In our world, we are experiencing the death of so much right now. As Russia invades Ukraine, we are witnessing the death, not only of innocent civilians, but the death of our hopes for a global peace. While we have often ignored it, we have an ever-growing humanitarian crisis with refugees at our own southern border. Women continue to face discrimination and abuse in the workplace and at home. People who are black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) continue to struggle with discrimination that results in increasing death and incarceration rates.

And we who are United Methodist are experiencing our own death experience as we witness the crisis of another delayed General Conference and now the launch of a conservative denomination that threatens to pull away those who would splinter our beloved church.

It seems as if we face just one crisis after another.

The Catholic Franciscan theologian, Ilia Delio, in her book, The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe, describes a crisis as “a rapidly deteriorating situation that if left untended will lead to a disaster in the near future.” She then goes on to talk about the various crises that we are facing in our politics, our religious life, and our world.

She offers a distinction for how crises tend to work in closed and open systems. She says that a crisis can bringing devastation, but it can also bring new growth and change. She writes: “In closed systems, a crisis functions like a sharp pain; it indicates something wrong in the system or that the system has been disrupted. In open systems, a crisis functions like a strange attractor.”

She further notes that the idea of an attractor like this comes to us from chaos theory and that such an attractor can “pull the systems into new patterns of behavior over time.”

Then she shares the following:

Since evolution operates primarily as an open system, I suggest that the crises we are experiencing, especially in the church, underscore a seismic strange attractor in our midst. Something new is arising within and disrupting the present system, pulling it into new patterns of behavior despite resistance. I identify this strange attractor as a breakthrough in consciousness.” (The Emergent Christ, p. 118)

As I consider the crises that result in power struggles … over land … over money … over global control … over churches … over the freedom to be who God created us to be … I want to see this like Delio describes it. It doesn’t always feel like higher consciousness, but I am convinced that the pattern holds true.

Maybe Jesus was right. Something new is being born even in the midst of that something that we love and cherish that is dying. It is here that I finally see that the evolutionary progression brings a hopeful truth. What lives must finally die, yet an unfolding resurrection is always just at the horizon.

Let that be our Lenten hope!

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