The Ultimate Paradox of Faith

The Ultimate Paradox of Faith

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Mark 8:31-38

If you’re the note-taking type, you might want to take out your bulletins, or a piece of paper and a pen, or your phone. In a few minutes, I’m going to invite you to write something down to reflect upon during the coming week.

My topic this morning is what I believe to be the greatest paradox of the Christian faith. We find it expressed in the gospel text for today and also in the closing prayer of the marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer:

Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.”

That’s the paradox–the way of the cross as the way of life.

We just heard Jesus tell his disciples:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

There it is again: the way of the cross as the way of life.

What on earth does that mean? How can a means of death be a way of life?

First a story, to remind us all of the meaning of paradox:

When our sons were in high school, we spent one family vacation mountain-biking in Costa Rica, which was every bit as adventurous as it sounds. It was also a lot harder than I had anticipated. Nothing in my years of tooling around on paved roads had prepared me for the terrain there. Riding uphill was exhausting; riding downhill was terrifying. Staring down vertical trails covered with enormous rocks and marked with huge holes, I would ride my brakes all the way down.

Our tour guide gently tried to teach me basic mountain-biking skills. “I know it doesn’t seem logical,” he’d say, “but the safest way to ride down a steep, rocky trail is to accelerate. You need speed to carry you over the rocks safely.” Intellectually, I knew that what he was saying made sense, but I could never get my body to believe that I wouldn’t be killed if I pedaled fast going downhill.

Such is the nature of a paradox. It’s something that goes against our common sense–a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd, but is, in fact, true.

We live with paradoxes daily. Our perceptions tell us that the earth is still and mostly flat, but the truth is that we live on a sphere spinning through space. In relationships, our instincts may be to rush in to help those we love in whatever way we can; but the truth is that there are times when doing so is not the most loving thing, that love also can look like holding back, creating space, allowing those we love to find their own way.

Conversely, our instincts sometimes tell us to pull back when a situation becomes too painful, when in fact what is needed is deeper engagement even when it hurts. I once heard an athletic trainer tell a group of aspiring young athletes that if they wanted to excel in their sport ( fill in here any other endeavor you would want to excel in), they would have to find “a new definition of fun,” one that included long, demanding hours of training and the sacrifices such training demands.

That’s the essence of a paradox–when what doesn’t seem true on the surface, in fact, leads us to a deeper truth or way of being to which we aspire.

Applying these insights into the realm of faith, we begin by simply acknowledging that the paradoxes of faith are many. They are, as the Prayer Book describes them in our Eucharistic liturgies, the mysteries of faith, those things that on the surface seem impossible, contradictory, or counter-intuitive, and yet we come to believe that they are true.

Surely Jesus expresses the ultimate paradox of faith in his assertion that those of us who want to save our lives must lose them, and those who lose our lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel will save them. He sounds like the Buddha when he matter-of-factly informs his disciples that he must undergo great suffering. For Jesus, suffering is not only a part of life, but essential to the spiritual path. He assumes that everyone has a cross to bear, and so the only question is whether we will rail against it or choose to carry it with some modicum of grace and find the life it brings.

But let’s drill down on suffering for a moment, for there are many kinds of suffering, not to be confused with each other. For example, some suffering is unnecessary and avoidable, and thus should be avoided. There’s nothing to be gained by needless suffering, senseless suffering, or what some psychiatrists call false suffering, that is, the pain we experience as a by-product of avoiding something else. Carl Jung once wrote that neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. In other words, sometimes we’d rather choose one form of suffering that isn’t necessary in order to avoid the cross that is ours to bear.

Nor should the universality of suffering make us complacent to the sufferings of others and the harmful ways that we cause suffering, or benefit from the dehumanizing suffering of others.

How, then, can we distinguish needless suffering from the suffering of our own particular crosses?

One distinction might be in the fruits of suffering, whether or not the suffering takes us anywhere or keeps us spinning in place like a hamster on a treadmill. Is it suffering that makes us more of who we are or confirms our fears and keeps us small? The kind of suffering Jesus endured and that he encourages us to embrace always has redemption of some kind on the other side. In contrast, the pain of false suffering, while real, is pain that goes nowhere. “Choose your pain,” a wise person said to me at an important crossroad in my life. “Whichever path you choose will involve pain. The question is, which pain carries the promise of life?”

There’s a fair amount of language in the Scriptures that refers to a process of dying to self in order to live for Christ, or sacrificing self, as Jesus says today, in order to gain eternal life. But I clearly remember what someone told me in my early twenties, “If you don’t have a self to give, then there isn’t much sacrifice involved.” It’s important to remember, particularly in youth or stages of immaturity, that if we rush too quickly to the part of faith that involves sacrifice without knowing who we are or what we have to offer, then we’re simply avoiding the hard work of becoming a self in the first place.

So with all those caveats firmly in place, let’s move now to the hardest way to determine whether a cross is ours to bear. It’s the one that comes to us and we must accept, no matter the sacrifice required, because we have no choice. These are the crosses thrust upon us and the only question is that of our response. The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister writes that “the will of God for us is what remains of a situation after we try without stint and pray without ceasing to change it.”

These crosses require us to let go of something–something that we love, or hoped for, or worked toward–and to let it go for the sake of a greater love, or, because life demands it, even though we wished for something else. And it hurts. It hurts as much as cutting off a limb would hurt. But the paradox, the mystery of faith is this: in the bearing of our cross, when it’s ours and we know that it’s ours, God gives us more of ourselves in return, selves grounded in the love of Christ, for us and through us.

I don’t know how this works. I only know that it does.

The key is to accept the cross for what it is—the hardest possible thing asked of us—and to embrace it as our destiny, even if we didn’t choose it and would run far from it if we could.

The journey of acceptance is a long one, and there is nothing to be gained from shaming ourselves for struggling to accept the suffering we would never choose.

Two close friends of mine have lost their spouses recently, both of whom had been married for over forty years. They both speak of how hard it is to accept that their life-long partner is gone. They aren’t reconciled yet to the cross they must now bear, though one, whose husband died last summer, has fewer days when she wakes up in acute grief when she remembers that she is alone.

On the path of acceptance, we feel a gradual shift inside, as we take in this new, unwelcome reality and befriend it. Doing so, we become larger inside, with room for this pain to be a part of us as a source of grace for others. We make room for Christ within, a room that he occupies with characteristic humility and love, helping us to become even more of the self we were created to be, even as we’re being stripped away of parts of ourselves that we hate to lose.

Lent is a particularly fruitful time to consider your life through the paradox of the cross, and to consider the particular cross that is yours to accept, through which God’s grace may flow.

We’ve come to the note taking part now: I ask you to write down, or hold in your heart, and name for yourself, if you can, the particular cross that is yours to bear. Don’t worry if nothing comes to mind, or if the examples that surface seem trivial in comparison to the suffering of others. Be honest with yourself, and with God.

Think, too, of the people in our society or in the wider world whom you admire for doing the same thing, those who have embraced the suffering thrust upon them for the sake of a greater good. By taking up their cross they are a part of Christ’s on-going redemption of the world.

In closing, I’d like to read to you a portion of an article that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the early years of his public ministry. “Suffering and Faith,” was published in the religious journal The Christian Century in 1960. This was after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and three years before the March on Washington. The editors wrote King back because in his first draft of the article, he never mentioned his own suffering, and they wondered if he might. He hesitated to write of his own suffering, he responded, but given that they had asked, he added a few paragraphs. They didn’t arrive in time to be included in the main article, but were printed later.

He wrote:

Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden, and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. I have learned now that the Master’s burden is light precisely when we take his yoke upon us.

As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.

There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.

With whatever cross you are struggling to accept, remember that Jesus is here for you to help you shoulder it. Trust that God’s grace will not only sustain you, but honor your suffering and help transform the loss you experience into a way of life. Rest assured that others will know something of grace and love because of the cross you accept and carry. Amen.

Choral Evensong for Lent and in Support of Peace in the Middle East

Choral Evensong for Lent and in Support of Peace in the Middle East

Join us on Sunday, March 3, at 5:00 p.m. for a special Choral Evensong. This traditional Anglican service of sung evening prayer provides a beautiful way to observe the Lenten season of repentance and renewal.

Additionally, songs and prayers will be offered in support of peace in the Middle East. We will take up a collection to support three well-known NGOs that have a track record of reliably providing humanitarian aid—food, medical aid, and mental health support—to Gaza and around the world.

Learn more

Cuando el Desierto Viene a Ti

Cuando el Desierto Viene a Ti

Jesús llamó a la gente y a sus discípulos y les dijo: “Si alguno quiere seguirme, niéguese a sí mismo, tome su cruz, y sígame.”
Marcos 8:34

En los primeros días de la Cuaresma, es apropiado que nosotros, como cristianos, consideremos las prácticas que podríamos adoptar en observancia de este tiempo santo. Al hacerlo, en consonancia con la metáfora principal de la Cuaresma, optamos por entrar en un desierto espiritual–es decir, cualquier lugar de desafío, aprendizaje o vulnerabilidad–donde podamos crecer.

Las prácticas que elegimos para la Cuaresma reflejan y refuerzan esos momentos en los que nos entramos por voluntad propia en el terreno salvaje de la vida. Lo hacemos, me parece, cuando sabemos que ha llegado el momento de hacer un cambio. Tal vez estemos preparados para afrontar algo que hemos estado evitando o para dar el primer paso hacia la reconciliación. Tal vez haya llegado el momento de hacer las paces con una parte de nuestro pasado que no deja de resurgir en nuestra mente. También puede ser la llamada de una aventura anhelada, o una voluntad renovada de arriesgarnos por amor, tal vez negado durante tanto tiempo que hemos olvidado lo que se siente al dar un paso hacia el deseo de nuestro corazón.

A decir verdad, una parte de nosotros preferiría quedarse donde estamos, pero vamos al desierto de todos modos, porque sabemos que ha llegado el momento. Una forma de ver la Cuaresma es como una oportunidad para practicar la vida en el desierto, aceptando o abandonando voluntariamente algo para desarrollar los músculos de la vida en el desierto, de modo que estén ahí cuando los necesitemos.

Eso es todo para el bien, y como resultado seremos más fuertes.

Pero hay otro lado de la Cuaresma que normalmente sale a medida que pasan los días y las semanas. Tiene menos que ver con nuestras prácticas espirituales y más con cómo es la vida cuando el desierto viene a nosotros. Ocurre cuando nos acordamos de las luchas que siempre nos acompañan, justo debajo de la superficie, como la famosa “espina en la carne” del apóstol Pablo, que nunca lo abandonó sin importar cuántas veces oró a Dios para obtener alivio. O tal vez se trata del resurgimiento de una pena con la que creíamos haber hecho las paces hace tiempo. Tal vez ocurra algo que nos deje sin aliento y nos recuerda nuestra mortalidad. O el sufrimiento de este mundo nos golpea de un modo que no podemos evitar y nos preguntamos cuánto tiempo puede resistir el corazón humano.

Estas experiencias cuaresmales reflejan y refuerzan los momentos del desierto en la vida en los que no hay otra opción. En un instante, la vida tal como la conocíamos desaparece. Suena el teléfono con noticias que no esperábamos. La salud que hemos dado por sentada falla. Una mañana nos presentamos en el trabajo solo para que nos muestren la puerta. Muere un ser querido.

A diferencia de las disciplinas de incomodidad elegidas, el desierto que se nos presenta es desorientador, humillante y, a menudo, muy solitario. Seguimos buscando a nuestro alrededor aquello con lo que normalmente contamos, sugiere la predicadora Barbara Brown Taylor, y nos encontramos con las manos vacías.

Cuando llega el desierto, nuestra primera tarea es aceptar que estamos allí, lo cual no es fácil. Pero debemos aceptarlo, porque no podemos abrirnos camino a través de él si no reconocemos dónde estamos.

Este domingo, en la iglesia, escucharemos a Jesús decir a sus discípulos que, si quieren seguirlo, deben tomar su cruz. Lo que llama la atención es la visión realista de Jesús sobre el sufrimiento, no sólo como parte de la vida, sino como una dimensión esencial del camino espiritual. Él asume que todo el mundo tiene una cruz que llevar, y la única cuestión es si nos opondremos a ella o elegiremos llevarla con un mínimo de gracia, aceptándola como nuestra y encontrando la vida que trae.

En el misterio de la fe, hay buenas noticias, aunque “buenas” no es una palabra que utilizaríamos para describir la experiencia, al menos no al principio. Y nos hacemos un gran perjuicio cada vez que descuidamos el dolor que implica aceptar algo que hubiéramos dado cualquier cosa por evitar.

Estas experiencias en el desierto pueden llegar en cualquier momento. El tiempo de Cuaresma está destinado a darnos la gracia y la perspicacia necesarias para abrirnos camino a través de ellos. El primer paso es siempre la aceptación. Cada Cuaresma, independientemente de lo que ocurra en mi vida, me encuentro cara a cara con las cruces que todavía me cuesta aceptar. No puedo decir que me alegro, pero estoy agradecida por los recordatorios semanales en la iglesia de que no estoy sola.

Con cualquier cruz que estés luchando por aceptar, recuerda que tú tampoco estás solo en el desierto que no elegiste. Atrévete a confiar en que la gracia de Dios no sólo te sostendrá, sino que honrará tu sufrimiento y te ayudará a transformar la pérdida que experimentas en una forma de vida. Es más, otros sabrán algo de la gracia y el amor de Dios a través de ti, debido a cómo estás siendo cambiado a la semejanza de Cristo en el desierto que te ha llegado.

When the Wilderness Comes to You

When the Wilderness Comes to You

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Mark 8:34

In the early days of Lent, it’s fitting for us as Christians to consider the practices we might take on in observance of this holy season. In doing so, in keeping with Lent’s primary metaphor, we choose to enter a spiritual wilderness—that is, any place of challenge, learning, or vulnerability—where we might grow.

Our chosen Lenten practices reflect and reinforce those times when we enter life’s wilderness terrain of our own accord. We do so, it seems to me, when we know that it’s time to make a change. Perhaps we’re ready at last to face something we’ve been avoiding, or be the one to make the first move toward reconciliation. Maybe the time has come to make peace with a part of our past that keeps resurfacing in our mind. It could also be the beckoning of a longed-for adventure, or a renewed willingness to take a risk for love, perhaps so long denied that we’ve forgotten what it feels like to step toward our heart’s desire.

Truth be told, a part of us would rather stay where we are, but we go into the wilderness anyway, because we know that it’s time. One way to think of the season of Lent, then, is as an opportunity to practice going into the wilderness, willingly taking on or letting go of something in order to build up our wilderness muscles, so that they’re there for us when we need them.

That’s all for the good, and we will be stronger as a result.

But there is another side to Lent that typically surfaces as the days and weeks go on. It has less to do with our spiritual practices and more with what life is like when the wilderness comes to us. It happens whenever we’re reminded of the struggles that are always with us, just below the surface, much like the Apostle Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh,” that never left him no matter how often he prayed to God for relief. Or perhaps it comes through the resurgence of grief that we thought we had made peace with long ago. Maybe something happens that leaves us gasping for breath, and we’re reminded of our mortality. Or the suffering of this world hits home in a way that we can’t shake and we wonder how long the human heart can endure.

These Lenten experiences reflect and reinforce the wilderness times in life when there is no choice involved. Seemingly in an instant, life as we knew it is gone. The phone rings with news we weren’t expecting. The health we’ve taken for granted fails. We show up for work one morning only to be shown the door. A loved one dies.

Unlike disciplines of chosen discomfort, the wilderness that comes to us is disorienting, humbling, and often very lonely. We keep looking around for what we normally count on, suggests the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, and come up empty.

When the wilderness comes, our first task is to accept that we are there—which is not easy. But accept we must, for we cannot make our way through it if we don’t acknowledge where we are.

In church this Sunday, we’ll hear Jesus tell his disciples that if they want to follow him, they must take up their cross. What’s striking is Jesus’ matter-of-fact view of suffering, not only as a part of life, but as an essential dimension of the spiritual path. He assumes that everyone has a cross to bear, and so the only question is whether we will rail against it or choose to carry it with some modicum of grace, accepting it as our own and finding the life it brings.

In the mystery of faith, there is good news here, although “good” isn’t a word that we would use to describe the experience, at least not at first. And we do ourselves a huge disservice whenever we gloss over the pain involved in accepting something we would have given anything to avoid.

Such wilderness experiences can come any time. The season of Lent is meant to give us the grace and insight to make our way through them. The first step is always acceptance. Every Lent, no matter what else is happening in my life, I am brought face to face with the crosses that I still struggle to accept. I can’t say that I’m glad, but I’m grateful for the weekly reminders in church that I’m not alone.

With whatever cross you are struggling to accept, remember that you, too, are not alone in the wilderness you did not choose. Dare to trust that God’s grace will not only sustain you, but honor your suffering and help transform the loss you experience into a way of life. What’s more, others will know something of God’s grace and love through you, because of how you are changed being into Christ’s likeness in the wildness that has come to you.

Young Adult Episcopalians: Living a Faithful Lent

Young Adult Episcopalians: Living a Faithful Lent

Shortly before his passion and death in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus taught the crowds in parables. In Matthew 25:31-46, known as, “The Judgement of the Nations,” Jesus describes the Son of Man in his glory separating the nations like sheep and goats based on their treatment of the disenfranchised. According to Jesus, how we treat the least in society is actually how we treat the Lord himself.

Jesus identifies five categories of folks who should specifically be treated with respect and compassion — the hungry, the stranger, the unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned. This Lent, the diocesan Young Adult Episcopalians (YAE) will engage in an offering called, Living a Faithful Lent, through which they will serve with EDOW partner organizations that support the very communities Jesus mentions in Matthew 25.

Beginning Saturday, February, 17 and going through March 23, Young Adults (20’s and 30’s) from around the Diocese of Washington are invited to gather for six Saturdays of service and reflection centering on Jesus’ words in Matthew 25. On the first five Saturdays, we will gather weekly at 10:00 a.m. (unless indicated differently on the schedule) at different service organizations throughout Washington, DC. Participants will gather for introductions and prayer, followed by service with EDOW partner organizations. The day concludes at noon with a brief reflection. On the final Saturday of Lent, the group will gather for brunch and reflection on the collective service experience. The Living a Faithful Lent schedule includes information on service times, locations, and ministry partners.

Young Adults may participate in all, a few, or even just a single one of the weekly offerings. Whatever most speaks to their heart. Registration is not required but is encouraged as it will help with planning. RSVP here.

This opportunity to learn about service organizations in our diocese and to personally engage in the work to which Jesus calls his followers has an interesting origin story. This offering came about because a Young Adult in one of our EDOW parishes reached out to The Rev. Amanda Akes-Cardwell, EDOW Missioner for Faith Formation and Development, with a desire “to do something with other Young Adults this Lent.” The idea developed from there.

Are you a Young Adult with a hunger to meet other Young Adults? Are you interested in the intersection of faith and the world? Do you want to know more about Jesus? Do you have questions of discernment and discipleship? If so, contact Amanda Akes-Cardwell. The diocesan Young Adult Episcopalians seek to gather seasonally for fellowship, service and worship. We welcome your ideas for meaningful gatherings.

And in the meantime, consider joining YAE for Living a Faithful Lent.