Not long ago I went to visit my mother at a busy New York hospital where she was recovering from heart-valve surgery. The elevators were so crowded that I had to go down to the basement to claim a place for the trip up to the sixth-floor coronary care unit. At each floor the doors opened in front of identical signs: “No cell phones.
Even for those faithful souls for whom Christmas begins on December 25 and continues for 12 days thereafter, the season is over. Epiphany has come and gone, the trees have been carted out to the street, and the boxes and gifts have been put away. The dog days of January and February have set in.
We Christians believe that we have a moral obligation to point to the pain that the rest of the world can’t see. Others may stroll past the suffering, but we stop and stare, take up an offering, make an appeal and collect blankets, sighing as we do our bit to alleviate some of the misery. That life may not actually be rotten in our part of the world today only increases our guilt for our occasional lapses into joy. How dare we sing when others are sufffering?
When I was a kid, my brother and I loved playing with toy dinosaurs. I’d let my brother take the ever-popular T. Rex while I went for the stegosaurus. Its back plates and tail spikes were cool, but it was this dinosaur’s second brain that put it over the top for me. I think I intuited at an early age that two brains are a good idea in the scheme of things.
As the Season of Lent rushes toward inevitability, scripture calls us to play the old game of Truth or Consequences—no, not the game show from the 1960s, but the old-time religion game of suffering and salvation.
Perhaps it was John Wesley who observed that a preacher has only a few things to say, only a few sermons to preach, and that the task of preaching is a matter of addressing in newly creative and energetic ways the few essential themes. After four decades of preaching, I’m ready to agree.
Paul’s daunting promise to the Romans haunts me: “Suffering produces endurance,” he assures the Romans and us, “and endurance produces character and character produces hope.” Recently I stood in the pulpit of my church and looked over the top of a white, 32-inch-long casket at a young couple from my congregation. Their six-month-old son, who had been happy and healthy just days before, had died in his sleep. The unfathomable suffering of the family was shadowed by a church filled with mourners for whom the scene enacted their most dreaded fears.
I didn’t know Lewis Smedes very well, but I miss him. The Fuller Seminary professor and author who died late last year was the kind of generous and open evangelical who gives me hope for the unity of the church at a time when that hope is hard to come by. We met just once, under peculiar circumstances.
Viking Penguin Lives, a series of biographies, lists Martin Marty on Martin Luther among its forthcoming titles (2003). Writing this book will keep me busy during 2002; doing the reading for it has delighted me through much of 2001.