I’ve learned not to chase after suffering even though my sins are many. Chasing suffering is masochism. It’s the same discordant thinking and belief I had when as a child, and as an adult, I was convinced I deserved to be abused. It’s the confusion so many of us who have been severely traumatized experience. We demand, “Why did I survive?! Why did I escape?!” We know we are no better than those who died, those whose lives were torn apart by crushing waves of evil. Too often, we engage in self-destructive actions unless and until we learn that surviving is good and, at the same time, excruciating. Survival is often suffering. It brings us face-to-face with accepting that “God made us all, and [H]e can do just as [H]e likes.” (1)
That’s an icy pail of water dashed into the face. I belong to God in a way I can’t fully understand. I own things. I possessed a family. I have friends. But nothing and no one is mine the way I am God’s. I create nothing. I can transform a piece of fabric and some notions into a really cool garment. I can transform many things. But I bring nothing into existence. I only use that which already exists, that which He made. I call nothing into being. Nor do I exist outside of creation. Neither is creation dependent on me. I’m just another created being.
God is different. He made everything, including me, from nothing. He made the plan, established the order. He decided to raise dust to divinity, to make us like Him. And suffering and sacrifice are the means God uses to accomplish His plan. But to see that, we must look at the cross and what Christ’s suffering and sacrifice have done. And we must keep looking until He permeates us with the wisdom and grace to accept the world He created and relinquish the world as we think it ought to be.
[N]o one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to into into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain… (2)
The great, worthy warrior, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” is “a Lamb” that was slain. “Huh?”
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses. (3)
In warfare, the enemy’s blood splashes on a warrior’s garments during battle. But the “King of kings and Lord of lords” rides into battle in a robe already dipped in blood, His own blood. He is the Lamb that was slain. Warfare is inverted. And the inversion continues:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (4)
The fine linen of the “armies of heaven” are washed “white in the blood of the Lamb.” Again, “Huh?” Blood stains. Yet martyrdom is the way we are purified and robed for battle. Witnessing to Christ in the midst of suffering and sacrifice prepares us to be part of the great army following the Lamb that was slain. This is how God makes war. Not by destroying the wicked. Just as the man planted the seeds of his own destruction when he beat the bare thighs of his seventeen month-old son, evil destroys itself. But God makes war with the suffering and sacrifice of His Son, with an army comprised of those who have died witnessing to the Lamb, those who pick up their cross and follow Christ.
This too is the banquet, the wedding banquet of the Lamb. To be sure, it’s an unpleasant part. But it’s part, like the creepy guy and unappetizing course. The pure hue of suffering and sacrifice are intricately embroidered throughout our wedding garments. Heaven is where the tears are wiped from our eyes, where mourning ends, where we have no more questions but only the joy of, “So that’s what was really happening!” and “Wow! Just wow!” Now, we train for that reality which we can only glimpse in the many parables Christ gives us. (And He continues to provide parables. Our personal stories are bursting with them.) The training is hard. It’s real. And, sometimes it’s excruciatingly painful. Sometimes, it’s suffering and sacrifice. Here, those who mourn are truly blessed because just as as I knew, even at thirteen, the hard work that was necessary if I wanted to perform the starring solo in the water show, I know it is true that if I want to follow Christ, I must “deny [my]self and take up [my] cross daily and follow [Him].” (5)
And I know my cross is already here, customized just for me. I decide whether I will pick it up and carry it. But I think that thing must be tethered to my ankle. I drag it along, try to affix wheels, try to find some way to make decorate it so that it seems less cross-like. Sometimes I realize how much easier it is just to lift and carry the thing; my back and shoulders are stronger than my ankle. But I can’t escape it. No one can. We get the cross whether we like it or not. It’s heavy and horrid and absolutely real. As real as the bullets that killed Grandpère and Ti and Marmar and Papa. Jesus didn’t die to save me from suffering but to give me real life.
“When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (6) Not if, when. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” (7) He promised a sword and discord. And I, quite understandably, don’t want either. Christ knew that when He prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (8)
Certainly, I’ve spent much of my life pleading for the cup to pass, for the suffering to end. But I also know I have the capacity to accept the gift of suffering and the gift of sacrifice. That’s coded in the Imago Dei, Adamah, “image of God” software package. When suffering and sacrifice present themselves, as the repentant thief did, I can fight on Christ’s side while, at the same time, asking Him to remember me. I can also mock Jesus and rant and rave against my cross. But whichever I do, there will be real consequences. My choices are like the bullets that killed Grandpère and Ti and Marmar and Papa. They bring real results, make real things happen. If I mock and rant and rage, I will obtain the real consequences of that choice. If I wash my robe in the blood of the Lamb, if, in the midst of suffering and sacrifice, I witness to God’s overwhelming love and goodness, I will also obtain real consequences. I will obtain the consequences I want.
Good triumphs over evil through sacrifice and suffering. Martyrdom is the happy ending of my story. And I want the happy ending, the “and they lived happily ever after’ ending, the ending that is a glorious beginning. I want it because my Friend has always been faithful to me. This book is only a sketch of His faithfulness. There’s so much I simply can’t capture. He has stopped me walking down so many self-destructive roads. He has rescued me when I’ve been lost. He has sustained me in the midst of cruelty and evil. Gently and lovingly, even though it must also be painful, He purges me of behaviour and attitudes that are destroying others and destroying me. He’s given me the opportunity to share in His sufferings and sacrifice, the undeserved honor of suffering with Him. He trusts me even though I’m not trustworthy. God has extravagantly invested an enormous amount in me. He’s invested His life. And He has always left me free to rebel against Him, to refuse Him, to reject Him just as I rejected the angels singing to me the first Christmas I spent alone. No matter the cost, no matter the suffering and sacrifice, when He is so gracious and loving, when He has changed my mourning to gladness, how can I refuse?
“It should be joyous!” I insisted, my voice a bit shrill. “This is a Sanctus. It’s what the angels and saints do. It’s the way the citizens of heaven praise God. That’s reason to be happy.” “Yes,” Robert agreed. “But it sounds like a dirge,” I huffed. “I’ve written a lot of dirges. Practically everything I’ve ever written has been a dirge.” I sniffed in a loud breath through my nose, “I’ll have to wait until God gives me the right music. This can’t be another dirge.”
“Please?” I begged softly as I remained in the quiet of the chapel several days later. “Please send me joyous music? Music that praises You. Music that gladdens the heart.” I sat back in my seat and listened with my heart, my eyes on the gold tabernacle. My stomach growled. I smiled. “I’m hungry,” I softly told my Friend, then gathered my things and walked into the street. The air was bright and crisp. At the restaurant, I ordered a cheddar burger, without the bun, and french fries. The light inside my heart was as bright as ever but no music played in that light. Once again, I gathered my things and trekked out into the bright day to find the elusive downtown post office. After locating it, and posting my COBRA payment, my tasks were done for the day. I had never walked this far in Houston.The bright, crispness stirred my feet. I found myself pointing my toe and gently making ronde jambes so that my feet fell, toe first, then heel, one in front of the other, and caused me to take a little skip in-between steps. From time to time, my arms lifted to second position and kept me balanced.
Daah dah, da daah da, da daah daaaah, trilled through my heart. “Horns!” I spoke aloud softly to my Friend. Again, Daah dah, da daah da, da daah daaaah. “That’s it!” I cried out, then realized someone might hear me. But I spoke aloud again, “That’s it!” I began to sing, “Pleni sunt coeli et terra! Pleni sunt coeli et terra! Pleni sunt coeli et terra!” (9) And then my voice continued singing though I’d not yet heard the music in my heart, “Gloria tua!” And I could hear the horns crescendo up, “Hosanna in excelsis!” (9) My ronde jambes moved to the Bossa Nova beat. “Wow! It’s joyous!” I told my Friend, my eyes smarting with tears. As tears flowed down my cheeks, I softly exclaimed, “It’s not a dirge. It’s just joy.”
(1) Margaret Sydney, Five Little Peppers Grown Up, Chapter 7 (http://www.readprint.com/work-5664/Five-Little-Peppers-Grown-Up-Margaret-Sidney/contents)
(2) Revelation 5:3-6a (RSV)
(3) Revelation 19:11-14 (RSV)
(4) Revelation 7:13-14 (RSV)
(5) Mark 8:34 (RSV)
(6) Isaiah 43:2 (RSV)
(7) Matthew 10:34-36 (RSV)
(8) Matthew 26:39 (RSV)
(9) Heaven and earth are full of Your glory. Hosanna in the highest.