Filed under: Bible, Christianity, Church, God, Grace, Inspiration, Jesus, Prayer, Religion, Spirituality
Someone screwed up; it was a clerical error really. It was obvious that there had been some kind of oversight. The Committee on Ministry that gave Carol and I permission to interview for our first congregations had inadvertently missed a deadline in our call process. The rules are rigid governing a minister’s move from laity to ordained clergy and this clerical error would cause Carol and I months of grief. We were told that even though it was our last semester of seminary (a time when most seminarians interview at multiple churches to determine their first church) we would have to wait an extra 3 months for the committee to approve us. All because someone forgot about us!
I was furious. I was angry with these ministers, I was angry with myself for not being more assertive and most of all I was angry with God. As the end of semester approached our situation became even more desperate. Our seminary needed our housing, our possessions were put in the garage of the bookstore manager, we had no money, no jobs, no place to live and on top of it all as soon as we left school our Sallie Mae student loan payments became due. We bounced from summer house sitting assignments, to in-laws, to friend’s couches up the east coast and to a tent in the Florida everglades. It was depressing.
Our fellow classmates already had multiple opportunities to choose from and we hadn’t been able to attend one interview, not one church had seen our resume. When a church became interested in Carol we jumped at the opportunity to visit with them. Soon they had arranged two positions in South Louisiana for us both. Since there were no other possibilities for us in one place we jumped at their offer. We felt like it was the best that we could hope for at that point.
For me it was an ill fit from the beginning. Even though I loved the congregation my church was very conservative both politically and theologically. I felt muzzled and constrained from freely talking about my own opinions. Plus, it was a dying church in a demographic that held little promise for any growth. Then there was the pay. Even though we didn’t expect this profession to be lucrative, after 14 years of school between the two of us we did hope to begin to pay off the debts that education brought. After a couple of years of being some of the lowest paid ministers in one of the poorest areas of the country we knew we could not survive. We knew we had to leave.
I was tired, burnt out, defeated and I felt like an utter failure when I left. We were broke and I did not have a job. Staying at home with our 1 year old after our move to Rhode Island I asked God why I had been called to this profession. Why could I not support our family? Why was I suffering? In time, with the help of others, I realized that my suffering was merely an illusion. It was a creation of my own low self-esteem and grandiose self-importance. The world was not conspiring against me this was just life. What is life if it isn’t filled with both the comic and the tragic? I was encouraged to embrace the tragic as important to my life. So, I endured.
Over time, and the support of caring people I was eventually able to quit looking at myself as the victim of life. I was able to look at these challenges that I had encountered in my life as valuable lessons that were forming me into the person that I was in this moment. I learned that the anger that I was nurturing inside was not harming anyone else except for me. It didn’t happen overnight, but through much prayer, meditation, conversations and honesty with myself I returned to hope. I began to look toward my own involvement in my calling. It forced me to be an active participant in my career instead of expecting others to carry me. It gave me hope that all I needed was right in front of me, that even in the most trying of circumstances tomorrow will be a new day. I have become convinced I can survive most things and still be helpful to others in the end.
I will not pretend that my desperate situation at work is suffering on the scale of the loss of a loved one, nor is it the entrenched poverty that Carol and I encountered from many of the people that we met in the delta. It is not even the worst suffering that I have encountered in my life, a suffering that I hold close to my chest like a good poker player. Yet, it was an intense, frightening and sustained suffering that turned out to be a totally unnecessary stress in my life. In the end I am glad that I experienced it, it was a lesson learned and coming through the other side has given me hope.
In Romans Paul’s brings forward the least compelling argument for the reason for suffering. It is that suffering eventually produces hope. Here Paul is not suggesting that our suffering will save us in the end. He is making a much more nuanced argument.
It is an argument of the progression of suffering to hope. What is in between the terrible tragedies of life and a timid resignation to hope are endurance and character. Endurance does not mean going it alone. In Paul’s world it meant reliance on the arms and feet of the community who are representing Christ here on earth. In our modern context it can mean support groups, therapists, psychiatric treatment, medication, as well as the network of others who help you to make it from the bed to the world in the days after tragedy’s wake.
Next, Paul believes that this daily endurance brings about character. There is no question that enduring suffering gives us depth as individuals. We might want happiness at this point from God, but all we are given is character. I can hear my father egging me on after every difficult task that I didn’t want to complete saying, “It will build your character.” Begrudgingly I soldiered on and finished the task, and he was right it built my character.
Finally, there is hope. Hope is such an underrated benefit of salvation. We want certainty, we want positive feelings, we want everything immediately to be all right but in the end we are left with hope. It may not be what we want, but in this life it is certainly what we need. What is the central core of that hope? It is that there is something greater than yourself, something Spirit infused into our hearts that represents divine love. It is that even in our failures, our suffering, our deepest despair we are loved and loveable.
When you are in the middle of suffering these words about hope may ring hollow. Yet, I do believe that hope, as a goal is much preferable to cynicism, depression and nihilism. It may be a long road of enduring to get to hope, but it is when we have made the journey that we sometimes can have faith that we are loved and held closely by our creator.
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