I’m reading a lenten devotional right now that is just downright blowing my mind. There’s no other way to say it. If you can, get it. (p.s. – it’s good for Lent and beyond, containing about 72 readings in all.) It’s called Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing House, 2003). Here’s what part of the book flap says (my emphasis added):
“Lent is a season of preparation, a time to return to the desert where Jesus spent forty trying days. But it should never be morose – an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures. Instead, it ought to be approached as an opportunity. After all, it is meant to be the church’s springtime [‘lent’ literally means ‘spring’], when, out of the darkness of sin’s winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges. Lent is a time to let go of excuses for failings and shortcomings; to stop hanging on to whatever shreds of goodness we perceive in ourselves; a time to ask God to show us what we really look like.”
[random thought: when I was younger and my family attended a Presbyterian church, we had weekly lenten potlucks called “Lent Event”. Makes me chuckle. Maybe it was just all the heavy food, but I remember loving those. Where did those go? I wonder if anybody does that anymore.]
So, in this spirit, we’ve been devouring these little essays. I’ve read two that have really struck me – both having to do with suffering. I’m always intrigued by folks who know Jesus and say they’re going through ‘a dry season’ or ‘the desert’ spiritually. I’ve been through some really difficult years in my life, and some other times when I’d say I was cruising along, but I’ve always felt like whenever I’ve reached out for my Lord, He has always been there. A steady, warm hand to grasp in the dark, when I can’t make my way (that sounds trite – He is my everything – but you get what I mean.). He promises He’ll never leave me, and I fully believe that. He might be hard for me to see sometimes, in my human condition, but never absent. I don’t like suffering. I sure don’t like to be uncomfortable. I hate the suffering of the innocent most of all. But I read these passages the other day, and have been turning them over in my head ever since (again, my emphasis added):
“There will always be many who love Christ’s heavenly kingdom, but few who will bear his cross. Jesus has many who desire consolation, but few who care for adversity. He finds many to share his table, but few who will join him in fasting. Many are eager to be happy with him; few wish to suffer anything for him. Many will follow him as far as the breaking of bread, but few will remain to drink from his passion. Many are awed by his miracles, few accept the shame of his cross.
Many love Christ as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless him as long as they receive some comfort from him. But if Jesus hides himself and leaves them for awhile, they either start complaining or become dejected. Those, on the contrary, who love him for his own sake and not for any comfort of their own, praise him both in trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation…Decide then, like a good and faithful servant of Christ, to bear bravely the cross of your Lord. It was out of love that he was crucified for you. Drink freely from the Lord’s cup if you wish to be his friend. Leave your need for consolation to God. Let him do as he wills. On your part, be ready to bear sufferings and consider how in these sufferings lies your greatest consolation.” – Thomas a Kempis
“Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecrations. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny oursevles rigorously for the wrong reason and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial…Some of us believe in the power of and the value of suffering. But such a belief is an illustion. Suffering has no power and no value of its own…It is valuable only as a test of faith…To believe in suffering is pride: but to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is in ourselves. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek him in suffering, and that by his grace we can overcome evil with good.
Suffering, therefore, can only be consecrated to God by one who believes that Jesus is not dead. And it is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.
If we love God, suffering does not matter. Christ in us, his love, his Passion in us: that is what we care about. Pain does not cease to be pain, but we can be glad of it because it enables Christ to suffer in us and give glory to his Father by being greater, in our hearts, than suffering would ever be.” – Thomas Merton
He must increase, I must decrease.