Needing a Certificate of Martyrdom?

A magazine advertisement I once read offered a Frameable Certificate of Instant Martyrdom printed with these words: “The suffering you have had to endure at the hands of life has been almost more than any person can bear. Rarely has such a noble soul been forced to put up with such undeserved agony. In recognition of your extraordinary plight, the Church of World Peace hereby awards this ‘Certificate of Martyrdom.’ ” To receive this certificate” the ad read, “all you need to do is list in your letter three horrible events in your life, enclose $10, and you will have in hand something “to console your misery.”

The writer of Hebrews had a better solution for those times when we feel overwhelmed with the trials in our life. Its author suggests: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.” (Hebrews 12:1) In our moments of discouragement, it is tempting to give up . . . Tempting to think of ourselves as the only one who has ever endured the loss, hardship or loneliness that we encounter.

The writer of the book of Hebrews points us instead, to the lives of our ancestors in faith who have walked in painful, difficult places before us. In spite of their trials, they continued to trust in God. Something in me soars whenever I read the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. . . “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen . . . By faith Abraham (and Sarah) obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going . . .all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.”

Within its long list of faithful are people who remained steadfast, continued in hope and believed that the final victory was God’s. “Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I generally gain some perspective about the time I reach these verses. Life can be difficult. Heartaches come. Our lives can get really messed up. Bad things happen to some very good people. Our hearts bleed when grief strikes and when grief strikes people we love. What gives me strength, and I believe gave our ancestors in faith strength, is  the assurance that even when life is hard, God is at work.  Troubles come.  But, in the midst of our trials God is with us to walk with us through them.

In your times of despair and doubt, when the race seems hard and you are weary  – Remember that there are those who have run before you on this journey of faith. Those so running would testify to God’s faithfulness and the wisdom of continuing the race. For they know in the deepest part of their being that the final victory is God’s.  Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

Building Hope

           Imagine a world where nobody helped anyone else. Or, where those who did help, only helped family and friends. Wouldn’t our world be less? One disaster follows another and we find ourselves stretching to do what we believe is right. There is never a shortage of places to give from local concerns to those which come to us by way of You tube videos. Imagine what it must be like to receive a gift of food when you’ve been displaced by an earthquake and all is lost, except the most elemental pieces of your life. Imagine what it is like to live  open to the elements after a hurricane has ravaged your land and receive the gift of shelter. Imagine wondering where to turn and how to cope, then someone you do not know, offers you the necessities of life.

On September 11, 2001 the city of New York faced its worst crisis. Attacks carried out on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center left the city crushed and broken. Throughout the  nation people responded to the need. Many sent money, while others came to search the ruble and heal the injured. The steady stream of donations profoundly touched Jeff Parness. A couple of years later he created a Foundation called, “New York Says Thank You.”

Each year, near September 11, the Foundation reaches out to an area of the country which has been hit by a disaster. They spend time rebuilding homes, churches, camps or whatever that city’s greatest need is. He says, it is not as much about the building itself, as it is about building hope. Hope came to him, in the darkness of the September 11 attacks, through the outpouring of kindness across the country. Today, Jeff tries to pay it forward, touching other lives even as his was touched by an earlier generosity.

The recent disasters have left us many places to offer our gifts and our service.    But, one doesn’t have to look far from home to offer help.   There is someone in your life who needs some extra love, extra care, extra time.   The happiest people I know are the ones who have found ways of reaching out to others, sharing their resources, their time and themselves with people who need someone to care.  Today, may you find joy in the giving of your self.

Civility is Basic to Christian Life

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

This passage from Phillipians 2, written by the apostle Paul,  has been the focus of my devotional life in the past week. I’ve been reminded that humility is one of the gifts of the Spirit and that when we stop assuming we are better than everyone else, we begin to see what we can learn from people who think differently. Every day, as I have read through the passage, I have been struck by the discord in our country and how people of faith have gotten caught up in those divisions. Sometimes we have contributed to them and acted in ways that were not constructive.

Today my local paper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, headlined an editorial, “Six steps to make America more civil again.” The piece was by Doug R. Berdie, of Minneapolis, a semiretired marketing executive and researcher. He names simple things we can do to create a healthier emotional environment . . .  from showing simple consideration for the people around us when we are shopping to doing a good deed each day. (I suspect doing a good deed for a person you don’t know well and happen to disagree with might help even more.) He named: Giving other people the benefit of the doubt; Helping in practical and tangible ways; Leaving our surroundings better than we find them.

We have been engaged in ripping apart the soul of our country. Our collective conversation has been bitter and divisive. We find it difficult to agree on much and even when we do, there is someone able to punch a hole in that unity. So, this past week, I found myself chastened often when I read the words, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

We are tempted to only look out for “me and mine,” but God asks us to stretch our minds and open our hearts. God asks us to see others as God’s children, who are loved and cherished by God even as we are loved. Scripture tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phillipians 2:3-4)   What a difference we could make in our communities if we started with respect for all of God’s children.