When I was a young and newly minted pastor fresh out of the seminary I arrived in Kingsland Georgia where we had just one shut-in. I soon found myself driving down this long country road into the backwoods of north Florida, turning down an even smaller road and then down two dirt roads to get to the home of Jan Ingram. She lived in a double wide that had been built up and added on to over the years, it was in quite a state of disrepair (probably since her husband had died a few years earlier) and sat on a large blueberry field about 40 minutes from the nearest gas station.
Jan, as it turns out, was the one God would use to teach me about caring for a sister who is suffering. There in that rickety old home I found a wonderful woman, a woman that would greet me with a big hug and a warm smile. She was a short lady and quite overweight she moved pretty slowly with a walker and quite often she was on oxygen. Her medical history was a fantastic web of one ailment blending in to another with so many medications that it would be hard for most of us to keep them straight. She read devotionals and prayed constantly, she hurt all over and sometimes her smile would fade and a tear would sneak out and she would ask me with all sincerity why she suffered, why did she have this pain, why did she need to struggle like this? Why indeed?
Of course we are never told in Scripture that a life of faith will be a life without suffering. In fact we are explicitly told the opposite. Over and again our Lord says things like, “Take up your cross and follow me!’ and “Remember when the world hates you that it first hated me!” St. Peter goes even further. He comes right out and says that you should expect a fiery trial, he says, “Don’t be surprised as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). This isn’t strange, when you were named as a Christian you were separated out from this world, you were disjointed from the way things were. Just as you are no longer expected to live as the world lives so you shouldn’t expect the world to treat you as if you were one of their own. Things are different because of your faith, things are different because of the gifts of Christ, things are different after Christmas morning. But we wonder… are they any better?
There is a type of persecution that comes at us who live this life that is disjointed form our world, this strange life of faith. Far more brutal than the attacks on our physical bodies are the attacks on our minds and souls, for there are times when this faith of ours doesn’t seem so much like a blessing but a curse. A curse that trusts in a God that seems to be so distant from our suffering. A God that is silent to our cries and seemingly willing to allow us to remain in our tears. And so the persecution is found within our own flesh when we doubt his love and protection, when we wonder at his goodness and care. It is the reality of a young pastor sitting next to a feeble lady with no words to give, no explanation, no answer for her questions.
Instead I would do the only thing that I knew how to do; the only thing that I was really trained to do. We would read the Word together, I would absolve her all her sins and in that little double wide in the middle of nowhere we would take and eat the body of Christ. And somehow this seemed to make things a little better. Jan’s smile would return her strength seemed to be invigorated and we would laugh together as she told stories of her youth. The pain wasn’t gone, the hardships didn’t disappear but the darkness seemed to recede and together we enjoyed the light.
When the household of faith gathers together, when we go to church, just like my time with Jan in her home we read the Word together and receive our Lord’s Sacraments, we hear his absolution and taste his supper. We return to the source of our faith itself, we drink deep of our Lord’s gifts, the very gifts that first called us out of the darkness into his marvelous light and then we head out again into the world. Head out with his Word still ringing in our ears, “You are forgiven, you are mine.” And this world will rise up to beat us down again, to persecute and try us.
But this is the great trick our God has pulled; their evil works, their fiery trials will only lead us back to him, back to the source, back to the Word. This is the ongoing cycle of a disjointed life of faith; it is the judgment of God (1 Peter 4:17). But even God’s judgment is cloaked in his grace. For by such judgment he brings us again and again to his Word, to his love and forgiveness. It can lead even a stumbling young pastor and a sickly lady back into his glorious light!