Many of you know that, for fun, I do triathlons. Last year, I decided it would be fun to bump up to longer distances. I raced the Leadman Epic 125 in Bend last September, with a 1.5 mile swim, a 70 mile bike, and a 10 mile run. Sounds like fun, right? Or at the very least, sounds like it could be a lot of discomfort. Here's the secret- no one actually believes the "no pain, no gain" rule anymore. We like to say that if you are in pain, you are working too hard and you should take a rest day. Of course, there's some pain as you push yourself past what you thought you could do. But real, make-you-cry pain? I leave that to the Crossfitters and go ride my bike.
I would not have wanted Paul on my triathlon team.
In the Romans reading today, Paul tells us that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. Statements like these were a cornerstone for the reason why I railed at Paul for so long. The nerve of him! Does the Bible seriously indicate that suffering necessary for us to grow as God's people? Does God intend us for suffering, so that we can learn endurance, and character, and finally in the end, find that hope that eludes us? That would be an awful way to live- like running a race where the finish line keeps moving. I can't bear the idea that I am not good enough for God unless I have suffered.
So why would this reading hold up for millennia? There must be something in there, some kernel of truth. Let's talk a little bit about the minutiae of this reading. The Bible we read in our church is the NRSV- the New Revised Standard Version. It's pretty darn good. But there's a few places where we can question things: for example, the word "boast". Paul boasts in his suffering. Let me give you an example of a boast: "I'm hammering out 8 minute miles on the run". Or, Bingham could text us from his vacation hideaway and write, "I'm at the coast and you are all in Eugene!" That is boasting. Meanwhile, in Greek, the word that Paul uses is less like bragging and more like choosing to put a positive spin on a situation. Some bibles say that he "glories" in his suffering. In today's parlance, we would say, "Yes, things are tough, but I'm ok." That is what Paul means when he says suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. He chooses a positive point of view.
Which leaves us with one more problem. This letter was written before we knew anything about disorders like depression, and before we knew anything about the biochemistry that can literally change a brain and make it nearly impossible to "glory in your suffering". Sometimes biochemistry changes mean that you cannot just change your thinking. What if the answers are not as easy as positivity? I've lived with family members with depression, and it can be hell. We cannot place the responsibility solely on the person suffering to "boast in their suffering". As human beings, have trouble with this reading because it can seem too contrived and self sufficient when what we really want is community and compassion.
When simple positivity and self sufficiency fail us, that is where we can use some grace. There, in grace, is our hope. There, in grace, is where we can meet God face to face. You see, we don't have suffering because God gives us suffering. We have suffering because sin has broken our world, and we live in the middle of this broken world. We hope, because in Christ, we are promised that this world won't always be broken.
When Jesus came to earth, then we got to meet God with skin on, a God who knew suffering and pain from our perspective. We met God in a way that allowed God to walk up to those people struggling with darkness, and to offer them compassion and healing. That's what I think Paul forgets at times. Paul is making the best of his suffering- but if he had had the chance to meet Jesus face to face, I imagine things would have been different. Circle Service yesterday sang this song that has the lyrics, "Take, eat, and be comforted". In my mind, I picture Jesus in a group, handing out that bread. His friends would have been frightened, afraid of what would be happening as Jesus drove out the demons and approached his own torture and death. The eucharist meal was about comfort, about providing a good, joy-filled memory during a dark time. Comforting the suffering was not about abstract truisms, but about real connection.
That real connection and that compassionate meal is a legacy which the church has tried to pass on to us through the ages. It's well and good that Paul is at peace in his suffering- real peace with God is a verb, something worth striving for. But compassionate connection, to me, that makes this reading click that much more. Suffering cannot produce anything until we come together with compassion for ourselves, for each other, and for those whom God created. At this table, we share a ritual meal, we pray for those who suffer in so many ways, we act as Christ's compassionate hands in the world today.
Of course suffering produces endurance- any athlete can tell you that. But we aren't here today to run a triathlon.
As a triathlete, I will tell you to take that rest day, to relax those aching muscles. As your priest, I will share in the blessing of that bread and that wine, so that you can remember Christ's compassion for his own sorrowing frightened friends. And as your friend, I will walk with you in your dark times, just as I hope you will walk with me in mine, and together, we will find that hope that does not disappoint us.