To boast, or not to boast..?

Address for 14 June 2020

Readings: Exodus 19: 2 – 8 ; Psalm 100: Romans 5: 1 – 8

There’s quite a contrast in today’s readings – between the assurance given by God to the Israelites, in our reading from Exodus, and about God, in the Psalm, and then Paul’s words, in his letter to the Roman Christians.
If you obey my voice – if you really listen to me, and keep my covenant, God assures the Israelites, “you shall be my treasured possession”.
“The Lord is Good”, declares the Psalmist, “his mercy is everlasting”.
But if all that adds up to a divine promise, Paul’s words sound more like a threat!
“We boast in our sufferings, – knowing that suffering produces endurance, and character, and hope.”
If God leads the Israelites to expect ‘special treatment’, then, Paul seems to be advising that suffering is a natural part of the Christian life – something to be expected.
But is it?
Is suffering to be regarded by Christians as natural, or necessary; as something to be welcomed, even, for our greater good?
We can probably all think of someone – that we know, or know about – who has emerged from a period of hardship, with renewed strength and energy and purpose.

At the beginning of lockdown I quoted Terry Waite, Archbishop Runcie’s “special envoy” – who, with his bitter experience of incarceration in Beirut, effectively told us to ‘get a grip’ – not overdo the seriousness of our current inconvenience.
And I’m currently reading his book – Travels with a Primate – which leaves the reader in no doubt that his sense of humour has survived intact.
And so, yes, it seems to be true that suffering can indeed produce endurance and character and hope.

Fundamental to our Christian faith is the suffering and death of Jesus; and his rising to new life.
So we know that good things can come out of even the harshest treatment and deprivation.
And yet, for those who are facing hardship of one kind or another, who are now in the enduring part of the process, there is likely to be little sense of hope or purpose – just the reality of pain or despair – and no real sense of any future perspective.
So I’m not convinced that suffering really IS something to boast about – with quite the enthusiasm that Paul seems to be advocating here.
If, as we profess, God is love – then surely suffering must be seen as a frustration of God’s will, and not something God wishes for us.

Although there may be consequences when we turn away from God, just as there were for the Israelites, his promise is still that he views his people as a “treasured possession”.
He calls us to trust that he holds us – through dark times and rejoicing – and to listen to his voice.
To do justice to Paul, if we had carried on to the very next verse, in Romans, he tells us that because of Christ’s suffering, we are now saved from the wrath of God – Christ suffered, so we don’t have to – a neat reversal of logic!
Perhaps what Paul is really telling us, is that whenever we do face some kind of hardship, we can draw strength from the example of Christ’s suffering and victory over death; we can draw strength from the way other people have overcome even the most formidable challenges; and we can be encouraged when other people’s hardship matches our own (“If they can get though it, so can I”).
I can’t deny that the process he describes – suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope – can work very powerfully – not just for unfortunate souls who themselves endure hardship, but also for those around them, who witness their triumph over adversity.
In the worlds of art and literature, of theatre and dance, it’s sometimes argued that you need a powerful dose of hardship – of real life at its bleakest – before you can really produce your best works, or give a full-blooded performance.
And, perhaps on this Music Sunday, you’ll bear with me as I pay tribute to the composer who I think had the greatest influence on me – as a musician, and also as a young Christian.
Herbert Howells, who lived from 1892 – 1983, was a perfectly adequate teacher, composer and performer of music. He was also a contented family man until, in 1935, tragedy struck.
On a family holiday in rural Devon, his 9 year old son, Michael, contracted polio and, 3 days later, he died. The tune to which we sing the hymn “All my hope on God is founded” was given the name “Michael” in memory of his son.
Without doubt the impact of this loss did indeed transform Howells’ creative powers – from perfectly adequate to something profoundly more individual and compelling.
It would be wrong to suggest that Howells ever really “recovered” from Michael’s death, and his own faith was somewhat ambiguous after that – hardly surprisingly, we might add.
And yet he went on to produce vast amounts of church music that is still sung in cathedrals and churches across the English-speaking world.
And it’s the compelling way he then began to convey, in his music, a sense of yearning for the presence of God – of “pining for beauty” as one of his anthem’s puts it – which captivated MY heart and mind and soul as an impressionable teenager; and led to the fusion of music and spirituality which has carried me ever since.
That feels uncomfortably like “like experience on the cheap” – he suffered, I benefit: pain and loss for him, life-enhancing beauty for me.
Howells certainly endured and grew in stature, but the hope belonged more to others.
I suspect that Howells himself did realise the greater creative energy that he possessed after Michael’s death – but there’s no question that he would have preferred, instead, to see his only son grow up.

And so I can’t accept Paul’s invitation to “boast in suffering” – however much I recognise the strength of human will and the power of God to bring us through.
I can accept that we can learn from suffering – our own and that of others – as with any experience of life. But that doesn’t mean that it’s is something we should seek out, in order to prove ourselves; that doesn’t mean we just accept suffering as inevitable.
Not all suffering is unavoidable: and unnecessary suffering – whether caused by deliberate cruelty, or indifference, or ignorance – is a cause for shame, not boasting.

The recent “black lives matter” protests have highlighted for us the continued hardships caused by inequalities in our global society. And if we are willing to delve further, and closer to home, there are others whose lives are incredibly hard – the key-workers we’ve been so eager to praise during this pandemic, but slow to reward with a decent wage – the victims of the modern “slave trade” who somehow disappear. There is now way that their suffering can be justified or dressed up as something good.
For them, and others, there is natural progression from suffering to endurance to character to hope – it needs other people to give them a cause for hope.

“God proves his love for us”, says Paul, “in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
He calls us to prove our love for him – not by dying, not by choosing to suffer, but by doing all that we can to prevent suffering where we can – and, if when we can’t prevent it, to do whatever we can to support those who are afflicted in some way.
Jesus himself, quoting the prophet Hosea, said “I desire mercy not sacrifice”
To be righteous in his eyes has little to do with some well-meaning martyr complex – a desire to show how holy we are by our hard work, or how much we’ve sacrificed – and more to do with a thankful and loving heart.
Loving Lord,
We thank you for your love so freely given to us all..
Empowered by your Spirit, may we be united in prayer and worship,
And, in love and service,
reach out as your hands across the world.
In Jesus’ name.