The other day I was helping a friend who is moving. One of the people helping her was a young man who is intellectually challenged, but who sometimes comes up with priceless comments. I was complaining to my friends about something I considered unfair, when he suddenly put the nail on the head. "Das Leben ist kein Wunschkonzert," he said. Life is not a "listener's choice" radio program.
It is a platitude to say that life is hard. Yet we all expect to somehow get through life unscathed, or at least healed from the worst of it. When we suffer, pray, and continue to suffer, we wonder what ever happened to God and all the promises of blessing we are told that God has in store for us. Where is the God of love? Is God on the side of God's children? Can we count on God to protect and help us when times get tough? I've been seeing and hearing about an awful lot of suffering lately.
Last July, our church community lost little Henrik, a sweet, lively, affectionate little four-year-old, to leukemia. Ever since he was diagnosed in May, we started praying diligently for him to be healed. There were some promising signs, but in the end, he died from a bowel infection he got from being so weakened from the chemotherapy. His mother shows the signs of this ravaging battle on her face, in her eyes. Did she lose the fight? Were all our prayers in vain?
Ever since my two trips to Egypt, I've been subscribing to a publication committed to helping and praying for Christians who are persecuted because of their faith - "Open Doors". Many of the prayer requests for this month come from Iraq. A team of workers from Open Doors traveled to the Kurdish area of northern Iraq in June. They say that the situation for Kurdish Christians has become less and less safe. I mentioned this fact to my husband. "They're doubly persecuted there," he said. "They're hated by the ethnic Iraqis because they're Kurdish, and hated by the Muslims because they're Christians."
I started thinking about martyrs. Christian martyrs. Everyone knows that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis in World War II. That's a lot of people. But I found out that 45 million Christians were murdered in the twentieth century because of their faith. In all of history, the estimates are that 70 million people have lost their lives because of their faith in Christ. But that means, over half of them were murdered in our "civilized" twentieth century! Since 2000, they estimate that around 105,000 Christians have been murdered every year because of their faith. That averages out at about one person every five minutes. What has happened to all their prayers for protection?
These people are asked by their church communities to not retaliate, but rather to live peacefully with their neighbors and to bless when they are being persecuted. Since the news about the anti-Muslim film has thrown huge tremors around the globe, Christians in Pakistan are feeling more oppression than ever. Does God care?
We in Germany hear a lot about the Euro crisis. Germans are being asked to foot much of the bill for a huge amount of Greek debt. Germans are worried because the crisis has spread to Spain and threatens to deepen in Italy, Ireland and Portugal. While we in Germany are living very well indeed, normal people in Greece are wondering where they're going to get enough money to buy a liter of milk. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks will have to go without heat this winter. In Greece, the suicide rate has jumped 30-40 per cent since the Euro crisis began. Does God hear the prayers of the Greeks crying out?
When I read the words of Jesus, I hear a different message from that of the prosperity preachers on TV. Jesus talked about "when you are persecuted". He talked about injustice all the time - about turning the other cheek, about going the extra mile, about blessing those who persecute us, about rejoicing and being glad when we are persecuted. He talked about bearing our yoke with us.
We protest about injustice. I am especially vociferous on this point. I expect to see fairness and justice, and am appalled when forced to see so much cruelty. But I think I've been missing the point along with most of the rest of us. I think Jesus wants us to hold fast to him, to let him suffer with us, to let him carry our crosses with us. He didn't ever promise that suffering would stop when we start following God seriously. In fact, it seems that, at least with Christians, that is a sure-fire way for the suffering to begin, especially if you live in certain countries.
If there were no domain called the "Kingdom of God," those of us who care about justice might just as well stop fighting for it. We'd be better off if we went home, ate popcorn, drank beer and watched TV. If this life with all its cruelty and injustice is all there is, what's the point of it all? I think we need to start looking somewhere else.
What would our lives look like if we could manage to bring our problems to God and leave them there? What if we could express our outrage at injustice to God, and then go on patiently with our lives, being peacemakers where we can, but where we can't make peace, allow the injustice to go on for as long as God allows it to? What if we could forgive those who offend us instead of mulling over all the details of the offense for a thousand times? What if we could enjoy the brilliant autumn leaves instead, accepting that in a month or so, they'll all be decaying on the ground? What if we could love God and trust in goodness, even while experiencing some of life's injustices? This kind of lifestyle makes no sense in a life lived solely on our terms, energized by our own power and inclinations. But today, the thought came to me that perhaps this is the way we ought to pray. It's the way I told God today I want to start living again. I forgot about this way of living when I got so caught up in fighting for my version of justice. My prayers are my faltering attempts to live the lifestyle that Jesus talked about in his Sermon on the Mount. I will have good days, and I will have bad. But living for these invisible, intangible ends is what a life of faith is really all about. Jesus promised another life after this one. Perhaps it won't be until then that we can enjoy justice, health, well-being and the fruit of all our good works. It is this eternity, which is an aspect of both now, when we live in the dimension that is called faith, and of a future life after this one, that my hero St. Francis believed in as he prayed:
- Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
- Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
- Where there is injury, pardon.
- Where there is doubt, faith.
- Where there is despair, hope.
- Where there is darkness, light.
- Where there is sadness, joy.
- O Divine Master,
- grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
- to be understood, as to understand;
- to be loved, as to love.
- For it is in giving that we receive.
- It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
- and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.