“ARE YOU READY?” the park attendant yelled. My friend and I felt the safety bar clamp down with a loud click, followed by a clack. Then with a jerk and a loud screech, the car began to roll down the first hill, up the second, descending into quick turns, flips, then fast ups and downs. It was a 30-second exhilaration that made my heart beat fast and spiked my adrenaline. The ride was so great, I wanted to do it again. I went to stand in line and wait. It took only 35 minutes this time.
When I was in high school and went to the Six Flags for Physics day, the manager held a question-and answer-period. One of the first questions had nothing to do with the physics of the rides: why was the wait so long? The manager explained that the wait was an essential part of the ride. By the time people get on the roller coaster, they are already excited with anticipation, and the ride drives that excitement to another level.
As we work our way through the time of Lent, we are journeying toward a new life, to the promise fulfilled. As with the ride, the great anticipation leads us to a glorious new experience. Easter provides a glimpse of that glorious new experience. By Easter in most parts of the country, some early flowers are beginning to bloom, and we begin to see signs of nesting birds and new life all around us. The gloom of winter transitions to the beautiful blue skies and sounds of spring.
As we work toward Easter, we need to do so with diligence and patience. Easter is the beginning of something new. It is the most important day of the Christian year, not only because it is the prophesy fulfilled or the promise of life eternal. It marks the beginning of a journey that will take us to new places and make us feel things we would not have otherwise felt.
Isaiah prophesized that in the coming of the Lord the world would be called into something new. Thus, the world was going to begin a journey, one that would be new and glorious. He said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
As we prepare, we must do so in preparation for the new journey to which Christ calls us. We must challenge ourselves and our trepidations to allow Christ to change and mold us.
I barely got on the ride that time. It was the first roller-coaster I had ever been on, and the whole time I was standing in line, I knew where the exits were. By the time the attendant screamed, “Are you ready?” I did not have much time to say yes, no, or dart. I was ready, whether I wanted to be or not. In our lives we are on a journey with Christ. Granted, there are times we don’t realize it, but it is through this journey that we prepare ourselves for what is next—the Resurrection.
I remember many years ago getting ready to baptize an adult and going through the choreography of the service. He was so excited, as was I for him to make this profession. His life had not been an easy one and he was looking forward to the baptism to serve as a demarcation of a new life for him. So we went through the service, I poured the water over his head, and the congregation clapped and welcomed him.
A few days later, he came up to me. “I am so disappointed,” he said with a tear forming in his eye. “I was expecting to ‘feel’ something, and I don’t think I did.” This spawned a long conversation where he told me that he was expecting to feel something like an electrical surge or overwhelming calm or something like that, but all he felt was what he always felt at church, peace and contentment.
He was not unique. Many people look to baptism to be a magical thing that pulls you from one state of being to another. Contrary to what many people think, baptism is not a magical moment. It is more than that! Baptism is an outward sign, a community recognition, of what God has already been doing in our lives. In other words, it is a ceremony where we individually and with the community we belong to celebrate the commitment that God has already made to us.
It is often hard to think that God is with us when we suffer or struggle. So we look to these special moments to give us clarity, hoping that they will give us some assurance that God is with us. Of course, God has already been working in our lives, suffering alongside us and holding us in our pain; it’s just that we don’t always recognize that presence. Just as the people did on Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday is a façade. It is an empty celebration by a community that was already plotting against Christ, leading up to the crucifixion. In the context we have today, we have a great celebration of Palm Sunday and then another great celebration of Easter, and often we skip the Passion of Christ's betrayal, abandonment, conviction, humiliation, and ultimately, the crucifixion itself. We somehow are unable to see the fullness of the Resurrection because we are unable to see the fullness of the sacrifice that Christ made by suffering through the Passion.
Understanding the Passion and Christ’s suffering are important, because the empty tomb is rendered meaningless if we do not know and understand how Christ was put in the tomb to begin with. Missing Holy Week and skipping ahead to Easter is like winning a race that was never run. Or, in other words, Easter is meaningless without the struggle.
The struggle is important. Unfortunately, as a society, we all too often cut out the struggle. When crafting games for children, political correctness has allowed the struggle to be cut in order to “make everyone a winner.” In life, if we don’t like our place, we can move. If we do not like a person, we can avoid them. If we don’t like our job, we can search for a new one. If we don’t have money, we can borrow it. We can do many things to elevate ourselves from suffering, and so could Christ.
In another way, it is similar to our secular lives. The freedom that we have as a people is due in great part to the suffering and struggles of those who came before us. In the same way, there are many who, because of the struggles of their parents, are able to live better and more comfortably than any prior generation in their family. Thus, history plays an important role, and the struggles of our previous generation shape who we are.
The same is true of our faith. It is in the struggles of Christ that we understand the importance of the Resurrection. God’s choice to send Christ into this world allows us to see God through Christ as fully human and fully divine. We know that he felt the same pains that we feel. He got sick, as we get sick. He was tempted, as we are tempted. And he suffered as we suffer. Thus, he suffered so that when we suffer, we know that he is suffering with us. Furthermore, he did all this out of love; he did this so that we may receive his grace and have life—not magical moments that are fleeting, but the sustained presence of God from before we are born until after we die.
As we go through the Lenten season trying to understand who God is calling us to be and how God is calling us to act, I think about the role of everyone in the congregation. A few years ago, I took a class at the United Nations on children and the church. I think this is one of the great struggles that the church has, because connecting with children and youth is foundational for a lifelong relationship with God. But this is a very difficult discussion, because we really do not have a very developed theology of the child. This is actually a remarkable aspect of our tradition that we have not really systematically dealt with a theology of the child. In fact, within the faith traditions, there is still a debate as to the definition of the terms child and childhood. Though more sociological than theological, the definition of the child often holds us back in understanding the role of the child in the church and may complicate our perception of the theology of the child.
On the most basic level, defining the demarcation between adult and child is very difficult. For some, childhood ends with a physiological change; for others it has to do with age; still others use acquired knowledge and wisdom. All three make good arguments, but still fall short in being helpful to discern the parameters of childhood.
The United Nations, through its Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is now over 28 years old, places an end to childhood at 18. This seems to be a clear demarcation. However, 18 years of age is not a clear demarcation here in the United States. In this country, the last legal demarcation between children and adults is 21. What this has created is a confusing dichotomy, since children as young as 12 are often treated as adults in legal matters. However, in some social spheres, childhood has extended into the mid-20s. Thus, the fluidity of childhood makes it difficult to dive into a theology of the child because once again we are called to look at a different set of parameters.
As a denomination, this is made even more difficult because we really do not have a coming-of-age ceremony. Unfortunately, we are relegated to using confirmation, which is not really a good substitute since it is about making a public profession of faith more than transitioning between child and adult. This often creates an awkward time for youth in the church where they are no longer little kids, yet not fully connected with the adult activities of the church. This frequently makes it hard to dive into the complexity of the child and may very well contribute to some of the difficulty that churches have with ministering to high school and college-age youth. But that is a different article altogether.
Sadly, when we do discuss childhood and youth, often the church dwells upon the social side over the spiritual side. Buying into the social understandings of the child frees the church and theologians from having to come up with a deep understanding of the child from a theological standpoint. In the introduction to one of our texts, Marcia Bunge points out that “ … the absence of well-developed and historically and biblically informed teachings about children in contemporary theology helps explain why many churches often struggle to create and to sustain strong programs in religious education and in child-advocacy ministry (Bunge 4).”
Churches often find themselves reacting to the needs of the child as issues and problems arise—usually cutting out the child from the process. Seeing the child as a vital part of the planning and ministry means that when we are working with children, we must include them in the process. When we discovered this, the response from one member of the class was, “But that takes a lot of time,” and it does. To really dive into the process of working with children, we have to open up and listen to them. We must look below the surface. It means that we may have to be uncomfortable by trying something new or abandon things we hold dear that serve no purpose for the child.
At the root of any good ministry is a clear theology directing us to action. Expressing that theology is quite difficult because we have so many different views of the child. This was evident in the UN class as each faith-based speaker came before us. They all seemed to have different perspectives and ideas. If I were to have one complaint about the class, it is that these thoughts tended to veer toward the social end rather than theological end. I am going to venture out and make my own theological claim about children. Let me know what you think:
As we come to understand the child from a theological point of view, the basis of our understanding is rooted biblically in the fact that we are all created in God’s image. Therefore, children are a vital part of the church and body of Christ. Children are human and thus prone to selfish want and desire. Thus, children, like adults, are imperfect. The child is growing physically, mentally, and spiritually, and it is the role of the church to empower the child to have a relationship with God.
This recognizes two issues: the relationship of the child to God, and the fact that children are neither superhuman nor less human than adults. In fact, a child’s life is as complicated as an adult’s, though in different ways. Starting at that point, this theology calls us to approach children and their needs, recognizing that they may have vital knowledge about their own needs that we may not see, but need to hear. More than anything else as a church, we are called to empower the powerless. Often the ones with the least power are the children.
I get the question a lot this time of year: “If God loved the world so much, why is there suffering?” This is not one of my favorite questions. In fact, I know every time I hear it what the person is asking is often much more complex than the question's apparent simplicity might suggest. Sadly, people far too often jump to John 3:16 and give the promise of the Resurrection, but don’t really deal with the pains and struggles of this world.
The fact of our faith is that while we are looking towards the Resurrection and the life that is to come, we are firmly grounded in a world from which it is impossible to separate ourselves. Unfortunately, this means that suffering is part of life. This makes life hard because the gospels and Paul’s letters teach us that in our suffering we must keep our humility and connection to the hope of our Lord Jesus. For he gave us the charge that “. . . whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
Often, in the times when we are at our weakest and allow for the spirit to work, we grow in our faith exponentially when we encounter the true difficult times of our lives, not false, manufactured ones. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is so good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart.1
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran by training and member of the Confessing Church, an anti-Nazi church coalition/denomination, was an early 20th-century theologian and martyr. He wrote this personal note to a family, in a time when his society was at war and the Nazi government's persecutions of the people were intense.
The question asked was probably one that is asked often today, "Where is God in the midst of the world we live in today?" Or, "If God offers peace, where is it?" This is a different perspective from pop theology, which tends to pick out the bits and pieces of faith that make the desired point, but in the midst of many stories, Old Testament and New, is struggle. Whether it is the fathers of the faith, the prophets, the disciples, or even Paul, the struggle and suffering is evident. But the promise and power of Christ is the hope and truth that the life of suffering and struggle of this world is based in this world and we must be of this world in order to move to the next.
Bonhoeffer, whose life mirrored the apostle Paul’s in many ways, was given an opportunity to make a choice. Though he was a strong pacifist, there came an opportunity for Bonhoeffer to participate in a plot to have a German officer get close enough to put a bomb right next to Hitler. This was a struggle for Bonhoeffer, but in the end, he concluded that to withdraw from the political and military resistance would be a flight from responsibility as a citizen of this world in which God had placed him, so he dedicated himself to assignments for the Confessing Church and the Resistance. Bonhoeffer was incarcerated in a Gestapo prison for his work with the Resistance before the assassination attempt took place. Following the botched Operation Valkyrie, he was shuttled from one prison to another. While jailed, Bonhoeffer often wrote, and we understand him and his situation and faith through his letters and papers from prison. In the camps, as we now know, the Jewish people, homosexuals, nonconformists, and political prisoners were not treated as human, but were starved, experimented on, and often killed. Survivors speak of the terror of living day to day in those conditions.
In the midst of this terror, Bonhoeffer reminds us that:
Christian hope in resurrection differs from that of mythology insofar as it directs us to life here on earth in a completely new and, compared to the Old Testament, even more incisive fashion. Unlike believers in the myths of redemption, Christians have no ultimate refuge from earthly tasks and problems in the eternal. Christians must partake of earthly life to the very end, just as did Christ (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), and only by doing so is the Crucified and Resurrected with them and are they themselves crucified and resurrected with Christ. This life here and now may not be prematurely suspended. This is the link between the Old and New Testaments. Myths of redemption arise from the human experience of limits, whereas Christ addresses us at the very center of our lives.2 It reminds me of the lyrics of a favorite hymn: My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. In the midst of the struggle that is life and that is the full nature of life, we cannot separate ourselves from the struggles of this world, but we can embrace them and allow Christ to embrace us through the Holy Spirit in the midst of our suffering.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen