Lent is here and already I am behind. I simultaneous long for these seasons and the spiritual gifts that blossom from introspection, and I fear them for the very
same reason. Several weeks ago I was very excited about this series on Viktor Frankl and the meaning of suffering, but as challenges mount in my life, I feel less inclined to think about suffering at all. There are days when I think, “Enough of suffering, enough of heartbreak, enough of the
macro-suffering of violence, torture and corruption, enough of the
micro-suffering from my own anger, judgmentalism and unwillingness to face the
truth about myself. But Lent is here and the spiritual tasks of this season are clear. It is the season of reflection, repentance and facing the truth within.
Most important spiritual journeys begin with a question and a search for an answer. The Gospel Lesson from Mark hits us with a profound question from Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” This is a peak moment in Mark’s narrative about Jesus. Before
this chapter lies a series of miracles and triumphs. Jesus feeds 5000 people, heals the sick, and wins theological arguments with the Pharisees. He is definitely on the rise, his fame stretching throughout the small region of Palestine. After this question is answered, he sets his face toward Jerusalem, where his challenge to the Temple priests and the status quo will be more direct.
I have ever sympathy with Peter in this text. He is caught up in a very exciting
moment. He is the first to speak animportant truth. “You are the messiah,
the Christ,” he answers Jesus. Peter senses the long-awaited moment when the world will be made right, he is witness to the turning point of humanity, he is a part of history being made. But he quickly becomes uneasy as Jesus begins to lay out the future. Jesus says he’s going to suffer, the religious leaders are going to unite against him and kill him, and after three days he will rise from the dead.
When Jesus finishes, Peter pulls him aside and acts as campaign manager. I imagine him in the modern context reminding Jesus that this strategy isn’t going to attract the swing voters and it is hard to make things happen if you’re dead before you get in office. Ok, so a dead guy once got elected in Missouri, but that was a one-time thing. Maybe Peter was thinking that Jesus just needed a better marketing strategy, like a
campaign slogan. Peasants first. A bridge across the Jordan to Zion. Compassionate Phariseeism. A chicken in every kosher pot.
While there wasn’t the 21st century sophistication of political campaigns that include pollsters, target mailings, speech writers and scripted campaign appearances, even in the first century there was a script people expected the messiah to follow. Peter was speaking for that script. Do what the Maccabbees did. Raise a guerilla army and take overJerusalem. Unite the religious leaders behind you and throw off the yoke of the Romans. Helpus fulfill our nationalistic ambitions and restore the Golden age of David. Be our King. Liberate us like Moses did.
Plenty of leaders tried to follow that script. Many scholars think that Mark’s Gospel was written about time when the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in 70 AD, just 40 years after Jesus’ death. A group of rebels did manage to seize power in Jerusalemin 66 AD, which led to Roman legions coming and laying waste to the Temple
as punishment. Jesus understood the power of marching feet and sharp steel. I’ll bet many of you saw the classic movie Spartacus, where Kirk Douglas played the leader of a slave revolt against Rome. The real Spartacus managed to recruit 120,000 slaves to his cause and defeated the Roman legions for about 3 years before being utterly crushed. It wouldn’t be impossible that Jesus knew about Spartacus, who died in battle in 71 BCE. The Romans crucified 6000 captured slaves to make sure everyone knewabout Spartacus. When Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” to Peter, he is rejecting the traditional script and throwing out all the expected campaign slogans and focus groups. Jesus correctly sees that such a script will lead to more violence and bloodshed and ultimately defeat. He will not be the Warrior Hero Messiah. Instead, he would be the Suffering Servant.
So the question comes again, “Who do you say that I am?” How might I go about answering this question today? I have empathy for Peter, for like him, I can be quick with the correct theological answer, but stubbornly slow at realizing the implications of the answer. Some questions require so much more of us than the correct answer; they require a reassessment and rearranging of our very lives. I wish the Christian faith
could be an intellectual journey and then I could do my research and write about who Jesus is. I could even put together a list of important moral imperatives and ethical implications of Christ’s life. I wish the Christian faith could be an assurance of happiness and success. I like the comfort of the Protestant work ethic, so that I could believe
any comfort of a nice home and financial security was a sign of God’s blessing, that I am one of the chosen. I wish this journey was therapeutic, that I could talk to a wise counselor who would help me resolve all my issues, and that with some daily yoga and meditation I would be happy and at peace.
But I think there is more to answering Jesus than any of these paths. Jesus chose to enter into the fullness of human life, including the immense suffering, agony and travails of tears. He answered these great trials with his life. I do not merely mean that he died on the cross. Jesus was in agony and filled with compassion for the suffering long before the reality of the cross. Jesus was with the lepers, the hungry, the demon possessed, the widows, orphans and adulterers long before the cross.
Anyone who has walked among the suffering knows this kind of agony. When I was in Nairobi,Kenya and saw the vast slums full of burning garbage and thrown away people, I felt waves of anger that such conditions could exist in a wealthy world. I now work with the homeless, many who struggle with mental illness and drug addictions. My heart is continually broken. I see lives broken apart at a young age by physical abuse that turns inward through a cycle of alcohol to pot, to cocaine, to crack. After losing everything, they come to our program with 28 days of rehab clarity. It is hard for me, after watching someone work so hard for a few months, to then go back to the addiction and fall back into the pit of substance abuse.
To be honest, some days I hate this work. I am tempted to hopelessness and cynicism. It is so easy in human services to guard the heart from peoples’ suffering. I start to blame them for their suffering, I get caught up in the enormity of work (including paperwork) and become impatient with my clients, and some days I just want to close the door and hide. So why do I do this? Is it atonement for my sins or does it make me feel virtuous?
You may be wondering when I was going to get to Viktor Frankl. He comes now at the end with his own question. Frankl endured the hell of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He was stripped of all dignity and hope and still found a sense of meaning in the concentration camp and beyond. He is a beacon of hope to me because he has passed through the greatest crucible a person could suffer and still find meaning. Frankl did not believe that meaning could be found in the abstract. Asking a question like, “What is the meaning of life?” is rather pointless without looking at your life. He ponders if you could ask a great chess player, “What is the best move you can make in chess?” The question is meaningless unless you are looking at a specific game that is being played. It is the same with the question of meaning in our own lives. Frankl did not believe that we ask life questions, but rather life asks us questions we must answer:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p.131)
Frankl shows us the journey we must take to answer Jesus’ question. To say who Jesus is requires us to answer with our lives. It is a challenging question, but it is also an invitation. Our greatest need is for a meaningful life. Too often we make the path of compassion for those who suffer a struggle of grim determination. We take on
challenges hoping to endure and win our prize at the end. Faith is not a path of endurance, but a path of freedom, hope and peace. When we choose to follow Christ, we experience our greatest freedom. Yes, there is a freedom to picking up the cross and following Christ, for we then know who we are and why we are here.