This is a piece published this week in The Geneva School’s Courier magazine. Eventually a downloadable pdf will be found here: http://www.genevaschool.org/about-us/publications-media/courier/
As I write this in late October, I find myself extraordinarily blessed. I sit on a hotel balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean with Santa Catalina Island in the mist off shore. Geneva has graced me by allowing me to continue serving on the International Board of Directors at Joni and Friends (an international outreach ministry to people affected by disabilities). So I travel once or twice a year to meetings on the Pacific coast. As is so often the case when you serve others, you find yourself the recipient of the greater blessing. Such is my lot in this case – every time!
While our meetings are happening this week, the ministry is also conducting wheel chair outreach events in Thailand and Peru, family retreats are underway in Cuba and somewhere in Central America, there is a “Wounded Warrior Getaway” for disabled combat veterans near Houston, Texas (those guys never “retreat”!), and so much more. But the ministry is also celebrating the release of a new resource, the “Beyond Suffering Bible” project. Five years in the making, this new Bible project is designed to give encouragement to those who live with suffering in whatever form affliction may come to people.
In an opening essay for this Bible, “No Higher Calling: A Christian Response to Suffering,” Joni Eareckson Tada reflects on her own life of nearly fifty years as a quadriplegic. She recalls a quote that she memorized years ago from a 19th century British pastor, William Law: “Receive every inward and outward trouble, every disappointment . . . darkness and desolation with both your hands, as a blessed occasion of dying to self, and entering into a fuller fellowship with your Savior. Look at no inward or outward trouble in any other view; reject every other thought about it; and then every kind of trial and distress will become the blessed day of your prosperity.”
I needed to read and think about that because, while I am blessed, 2016 has also been an extraordinarily difficult year for Mary and me with our daughter Jessica. Over twenty times since January, Jessica has needed to be at South Seminole or ORMC for medical intervention related to her feeding tube. I don’t need to tell you how much such challenges wear you out, body and soul.
And I know that in our Geneva community of several hundred families, people face a wide range of afflictions of heart, mind, soul, and body. In our American post-modern context, everything seems aimed at minimizing risk, injury, pain, or even inconvenience. But the Scriptures give us a different picture of the reality of life. In the “real” world, we gain by losing, we live by dying. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Rom. 5:3-4). Comfort and pleasure on the other hand seem to produce self-centeredness rather than self-denial.
St. Sebastian (3rd century martyr under Diocletian) said something like “It’s not that we have suffered so much; but that we have suffered so little and so poorly.” Like most of you, I try to avoid pain (I ask the dentist for the legal limit!), and I enjoy comfort and simple pleasures. But the way of the cross is a way of denial, pain, suffering, and affliction. Not to demean anyone’s suffering, but not only do we suffering so much less than our forbearers, but we generally bear up rather poorly under our suffering. I know I do.
Someone once asked Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones, “What does a person look like who has met God?” Thinking of Genesis 32:31, the pastor responded, “That person will be walking with a limp.” I wish it weren’t so, but we know this is true. God most often uses people after He has broken them. Humility and submission seem to be a prerequisite for service to God, and those qualities come from the fire of trials and affliction.
So we have this tension in our lives. We want our children to be safe, to experience happiness, and to gather a full load of cherished memories of good things. We want them to excel in all their endeavors and activities. We cheer when they win; we offer congratulations (and feel a certain amount of parental pride) when they demonstrate a mastery of some skill.
But let’s remember that the most precious lessons come not from the wins, but from the heart-breaking losses. The way up, in God’s economy, too often requires going downward. The 8th grade classes recently discussed the Transfiguration from Mark’s Gospel. We made the point that though we all love the “mountain top experience,” the reality is that we live life in the valley at the bottom of the mountain. We can stay only briefly in the clouds and reverie of the wonder of the “spiritual high.” But the rest of life is often a slog through difficulty as we practice faithfulness in the dark valley at the mountain’s foot.
Sometimes it’s not our own difficulties, but those of others nearby that teach us. The followers of Jesus at the bottom of the mountain were not afflicted, but they were faced with a father and son who were (see Mark 9:14-ff). In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-ff), the “hero” was not afflicted, but the man in the ditch certainly was. But the point of the story was that character is revealed by how we respond to the needs of others. The “religious” and ethnically “pure” people showed a heartless character as they walked on by their neighbor in need. But the Samaritan (from a rejected people group) showed godliness and goodness by coming alongside the one in need. Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be servant of all.” We want to inculcate this ethic in our community. Rather than mocking or rejecting those in our midst with needs, we want to see students come alongside their classmates in need. We want to model for them and to see them model for others a willingness to love the unlovely, to support those in great need – especially when it costs us in some personal way.
God smiles on such servanthood. May we be found to be such people.
(Postscript: Not to be self-promotional, but I was privileged to contribute to the “Beyond Suffering Bible” project, writing notes, devotionals, and introductory material for Deuteronomy, Hebrews, and portions of 1-2 Samuel.)