Monday, July 18, 2011

Labor Pains: Practical Religion For The Real World

William James was the father of American psychology.
In the early 1900’s, he was a leader
of a movement called pragmatism.
James was interested in what works in the real world.

When it came to religion, he wanted to know what works.
He asked what kind of religion actually sustains us in real life.
James said the two most effective religions in the world
were Buddhism and Christianity.
They were effective because they faced up to how hard life can be
and worked with that situation in a creative, helpful way.

For a religion to be effective, James said,
it has to be true to our experience
but it also has to offer us hope that goes beyond our experience.
He contrasted Christianity with another approach
to life he called “the religion of healthy mindedness.”
That’s the idea that if we just get our minds right
everything will be just fine.

Since the William James days, a lot of happy minded religion
has found its way into Christian churches,
and even more into Christian television and radio.
Just believe right and it will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Get your religion right and your marriage will be smooth,
your kids will behave, and your stocks will go up.
It’s called “the prosperity gospel.”

If that kind of religion works for someone,
I wouldn’t want to take it away from them.
But what does the prosperity gospel say
when your marriage has issues, your kids don’t behave,
or your stocks go down?
It says: you aren’t right with God.

Whatever happens to you is your fault,
and by the way you’re probably going to hell.
The religion of happy mindedness works fine as long as things are alright,
but when the going gets tough,
the religion of healthy mindedness gets harsh.

Orthodox Christianity doesn’t tell us that everything is alright
or that it will be alright if we just think the right thoughts.
Christianity does not say that hardships are illusions
or that they are punishments for not having enough faith.

Christianity is clear and emphatic that this world is not yet
the way God wants it.
Libraries full of books have been written to explain
why the world is the way it is.
You can find several different ways of looking at it in the Bible.
But they all agree that things are not right.

There are religions that sing nothing but happy praise songs
all the day long.
There are churches that never sing a hymn in a minor key.
But orthodox Christianity knows how to sing the blues.
We have songs like Wayfaring Stranger and Balm in Gilead.
We have Lent and Holy Week.
We have saints and martyrs who were far from happy minded.
We have preachers like Charles Spurgeon who said,
“No cross; no crown.”
Folk singer Nancy Griffith sang,
“It’s a hard life. It’s a hard life.
It’s a very hard life.
It’s a hard life wherever you go.”
Of course, it isn’t always a hard life.
Sometimes it’s a lot of fun.
But when life is hard,
what is a Christian supposed to think about that?

Let’s look at what St. Paul says in today’s lesson.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

Paul doesn’t say it’s alright now, but that there’s something coming.
Paul is dreaming of an uncloudy day.
He says that the world will be changed and that we ourselves will be changed.
Listen to this:
“For the creation waits with eager longing
for the revealing of the children of God;
. . . .the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay
and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. “
Right now life can be an ordeal,
but Paul calls all our ordeals “labor pains.”
He says this:
The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;
and not only the creation, but we ourselves,
. . . groan inwardly while we wait for adoption,
the redemption of our bodies.”

One of the best philosophers alive today is an Anglican priest
named Marilyn McCord Adams.
In one of her books, she looks at some of the explanations
for why things go wrong.
She talks about free will and that sort of thing.
When it comes to ordinary hardships,
those explanations work more or less.
But then she asks about the really awful things that happen.
She calls those things “horrendous evils.”

I won’t cast a pall on your morning with examples.
But you know what she means – the real horrors of war, crime, terrorism,
and natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti.

In the face of those things,
the nice little philosophical musings all ring hollow.
Besides, Adams says, we don’t want those things explained.
We want them redeemed.
And so, she says, they shall be.
God is infinitely beyond anything we have experienced, she says.
God is infinitely greater than even the most horrendous evils
that have ever happened on this earth.

What does God have waiting for us?
God has God’s own self to give us.
God promises that all our hardships, all our griefs,
will be swallowed up
in the transcendent glory of his love.

That’s what Paul means when he says,
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed . . . .”
We don’t live in passive acceptance of things as they are.
We live in hope that things will not just be better,
they will be glorious.
The difference between Christian suffering and ordinary suffering
lies in a single word: hope.
And that single word makes all the difference.

St. Paul said,
“For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait for it with patience.”

We have a faith that can sing the blues
but we sing the blues with hope.
Ordinary suffering is laced with despair
because it doesn’t believe in tomorrow.
We live with today because we have supreme confidence
in tomorrow – a tomorrow in the presence of God.