Those Who Are Suffering

Let’s talk suffering.

By now I’ll assume you know I don’t give much merit to American Christians who cry persecution here. That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns about religious freedom. By and large, most people of all faith traditions, Christian and otherwise, feel those apprehensions.

Generally speaking, Christians in the US have mistaken a fall from religious dominance for persecution. We can point to noticable shifts in societal perspectives to explain this feeling. A lot of the blame, though, falls at the feet of the church.

We’ve been untrustworthy. We’ve been poor witnesses to the gospel. While preaching forgiveness we brought shame. We masked abuse to protect ourselves and our ministries. With boldness, the church told the rest of the world how wrong it was while ignoring its own faults.

Is it any wonder people outside the faith don’t trust the church?

All that clouds our sense of suffering. Most of our congregations know the feeling of struggle to maintain the status quo, but we do not know suffering for the gospel’s sake.

At times the church has made people suffer. Whether it was the lure of power or the supposed defense of orthodox belief and practice, the church has often been a heavy hitter.

There are many times as well the church, or at least people of God have been the aim of persecution. It still happens. It is still happening around the world today.

As Christians, we need a developed understanding of suffering. The true struggle against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms necessitates that we do. Suffering as a result of the gospel requires our willingness to decide what the good news means to us.

1 Peter has in mind those Christians who are suffering. The ones who worship in secret to avoid death from their governments. Those imprisoned for their unwillingness to recant their convictions. Congregations who hear of their sanctuaries closed and burned to the ground.

That’s the suffering 1 Peter anticipates Christians will face. Now, thanfully, not all of us do. That’s why it irks me when we conflate our fall from grace as persecution.

The question remains, are we prepared to face that kind of suffering? How would we respond?

1 Peter 3 lays out a few responses for us. Peter’s point is one I pray we hold close to us. That even in the face of persecution our witness would hold strong. As you face suffering for the sake of the gospel, that the Lord would strengthen your heart and mine, make all that we declare about the goodness of God real enough to believe it with all our heart and all of our life.

And if we do not face such suffering, how will we support our sisters and brothers of faith who are?

Stay blessed…john

A Fast Confession

In my United Methodist tradition, clergy members of an Annual Conference vote to ordain people. Prior to the vote, someone seeking ordination has completed a several-year process of discovery and discernment. For that person, that process began in the local church.

Before the final vote, and before the actual ordination ceremony, the bishop asks several questions of every candidate for ordination. We call them Wesley’s historic questions.

They include thoughts about personal faith in Christ, a review of the doctrine of the church and a commitment to work “wholly to God and his work.” Candidates also answer to their willingness to serve the local church. Three questions are particular to that.

Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? If I could’ve been so candid when the bishop asked me that, I would’ve said, “People say I focus too much and children and youth.”

Will you visit from house to house? I try. You may be surprised to know a lot of people don’t want others to visit them at home.

Finally, will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? Yes and yes.

The outset of Lent gives me a chance to talk about fasting. It’s not that we don’t talk about it other times. It’s that a lot of people connect Lent with fasting. And that’s great.

Now, do a lot of people practice fasting? My guess is not all that much. I say that because no one really approaches me about fasting. People ask me about reading the Bible or praying. I take that to mean they’re wrestling with those.

Now, I need to confess.

During our year of quarantine and lockdown, I haven’t fasted like I had done before. Sundays were my usual fast days. That was a personal decision, by the way. Church tradition has been to not fast on Sundays because it’s a day of feasting and worship.

Still, I allowed the disorder of the last year to get in the way of a spiritual practice I know to be holy, and one I committed to exemplify to you. I understand how easy it is to let fasting be an afterthought.

There are numerous examples of fasting in the Bible. Today, we look at the fast Jesus undertook in the wilderness for forty days and nights. Whatever form of fast you choose to take on, let’s consider a couple of aspects from that of Jesus.

First, when his fast was over, he was “famished.” I don’t mean to suggest you should starve or punish yourself through fasting. What I do see is that this was a serious time for Jesus. His wilderness experience was a test. It wasn’t easy. It took effort for him to hold to it.

We get serious about work. About our dreams. About our latest streaming series. It is not going to hurt us to get serious about our walk with God. 

Second, we learn something about Jesus when his fast is over. Jesus probably learned something as well. Something about God. Something about himself. Maybe even something about the devil. When you fast, are you taking time to reflect on what God might be wanting to speak to your heart?

Fasting is not just an act we do to show off our piety. Instead, it can be a willful time to open yourself up to hearing from the Lord.

Among other things, fasting teaches us to trust in God. That trust may be something we learn through fasting. There are also decisions we make when we fast. In deciding what and how you’ll fast, you’re determining “how much” you want to give up in this pursuit.

If you need help figuring out what your fast can or should look like, I’m here for you. I told the bishop I would encourage you to fast. And I’m holding myself accountable to my practice. Will you consider fasting as a way to draw close to the will of God?