Fifty-six years ago John Lewis used a whites-only restroom in Jackson, Mississippi. Police arrested him and authorities sent him to Parchman Prison. Parchman is the state’s only maximum security prison for men.

Lewis entered that restroom to protest racism in America. He knew that arrest and imprisonment would probably follow. In the segregated South, black men and even children had been lynched for less.

DEIpgfIXYAIfyH_.jpg-largeFor the sake of justice Lewis willingly endured suffering. His life offers an inspiring example to others because he lives by a counterintuitive truth.

Life’s meaning emerges most clearly when we know what we are willing to suffer for.

Congressman Lewis learned this truth from Jesus. And what Jesus teaches about suffering convinces me that he’s worth following.

I recognize that, for my atheist and agnostic friends, suffering provides the strongest available argument against belief in God. Well, maybe the second strongest argument after Christian hypocrisy, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Let me be clear. Jesus never tries to square all the suffering in the world with a loving God. Instead, he clearly faces the truth that everybody suffers.

As Jesus puts it, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) Faith does not give anybody a get-out-of-misery-free card.

Jesus does not teach us how to avoid suffering. He teaches us how suffering is involved in making life meaningful. His teaching is summarized in two brief sayings that initially seem difficult to reconcile:

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24b)

In other words, we will find comfort and peace in the teachings of Jesus. At the same time, following Jesus involves taking harrowing risks and making significant sacrifices. A story involving John the Baptist illustrates how these teachings complement each other .

After Jesus’ ministry has gotten serious traction, John the Baptist finds himself languishing in prison. It’s bad enough to be stuck in Herod’s moldy, rat-infested basement. But John realized that he wouldn’t leave the palace grounds with his head attached.

John’s blunt criticisms of the establishment and his fierce confrontations with the rich and powerful had landed him in a cell. He had called Israel to a better way. A way that he believed right down to his sandals was God’s way. After all, he had gotten it from Scripture.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Care for the widow and the orphan. Do not enrich yourself at the expense of others. Oppress no one with force of arms and the threat of violence. Welcome the stranger and the foreigner. Ensure that everyone has a way to make a decent life for themselves.

For his efforts he was rotting in jail and facing a grisly execution.91866-004-0B707093

Staring at the walls and fighting back images of the chopping block, John started wondering, “Was it worth it?”

And so, he sends his followers to Jesus. He wants to know, “Are you the one?” Is God really going to make justice happen? Or am I suffering for nothing? (Matthew 11:3)

Jesus answers by pointing to his works. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:5)

I take his meaning to be something like this: Would your life be worth living if you didn’t do whatever it takes to pursue the dream of God’s justice for all?

Sure, you could play it safe. You might save your life by keeping your mouth shut. By going along to get along. But in a more significant sense, you would lose your life. You would become a hollow soul. Filled with regret and fear and shame.

Knowing the dream for which you will suffer—for which you will make sacrifices—gives your life clarity and purpose. You can live comfortably in your own skin.

Conversely, forsaking your dream for a paycheck or social approval or personal safety withers the soul. Sister Helen Prejean recently tweeted about a conversation she had with the member of an execution strap-down team. He said to her, “What am I supposed to tell my kids when I get home?” Later, the man quit the job.

Jesus isn’t about playing it safe. He urges us to follow him on the way of the cross. Paradoxically, it is the only way to a life worth living. To eternal life.

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29 Comments

  1. Following Jesus’s lead (which leads to the suffering you speak of above) puts one at odds with the world – and unfortunately at odds with many church goers. Most of our spiritual leaders (priest/pastors/vestry) don’t seem to lead this kind of life – where do we look for mentors/leaders when our churches aren’t at odds with the world? What does this kind of life look like? I have read of individuals who give a large portion of their income as alms, living modestly and showing us the possibilities of how we can live such a life. I have been thinking about stewardship. Giving of what I have has been an important part of my spiritual growth. We are called to tithe 10% – but our churches don’t use 10% of their income for mission and outreach. How can the church ask us to give when the church doesn’t? I have found that the suffering of giving more than is ‘wise’ by the standards of the world (of time, talent and treasure) leaves me tired and broke – but lets my soul sing. As Christians we are called to give our cloaks and shirts and everything we have. We need to hear this from the pulpit and in study groups. The church (people, not buildings) will not move toward a life more in line with Jesus’s teaching if we are not pushed and shown by example.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I don’t know the specifics of your situation, so I’m unable to say anything about that. Besides, it probably isn’t my place to do so and I don’t think you’re asking me to do that. But I can share a few of my basic principles. The Church is the people, not the building or the hierarchy. All the baptized are leaders. Not just the ordained. So if you’re looking for a leader to speak out, appoint yourself. The Church errs. It’s made of humans, even if energized and influenced by the divine. We need to change. Change is really hard. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to reach out.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent advice Bishop Jake! I do try and will try to lead by example. But I find that the people who compose the church look to the ordained for guidance much more than the lay person. I have noticed over the years a move toward terminology that highlights the responsibilities of the lay person and I find that encouraging. But our churches are organized with a head of each congregation – the pastor or priest. Until the authority structure of the church changes (which in most churches will be a long time coming) I think most will look to the clergy for guidance. There will have to be a sea change for the people who are our church to look to their peers for guidance over their clergy. And I don’t see any movement on the part of the clergy or power structure to change that. But I am not in that power structure, so maybe I don’t see the changes that are being made. But every pebble makes a wave and we can all work toward making waves! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And lots of pebbles make lots of waves. I’ve told clergy and laity alike to remember the vision. We’re engaging God’s mission of restoration, healing, and reconciliation. Don’t wait for me. Get out there and be about it. Don’t be afraid of failure. What we think of as failures are just first drafts. If you never fail, you’re not trying anything new. Hang in there.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I haven’t said it, and thought I should. I find your blog posts challenging, thought provoking and welcome each one. I wouldn’t reply if I didn’t appreciate them. Thank you for your efforts in starting thought and your welcoming of dialogue. As an aside, I have failed often and spectacularly in life and after so many successes at failing I welcome them (grudgingly) as paths to growth. Thanks, Bishop. You make me glad to be Episcopal and in this diocese.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this. A few days ago, I was coaching someone and he said to me, he doesn’t think there are many people with “narrow way” mindsets like I have (my platform is called The Narrow Gateway). I see narrow way x 100 in this blog post. So challenging. Scares the daylights out of me. But makes me feel a keen sense of my need for God and for His Spirit, as i do what He has called me to do in this world – pursue the narrow way that leads to life, and show the world the signposts to that way. Such a deep blog post. Can’t even begin to image what John Lewis’ life was like. What a sacrifice. All for the sake of the call.

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    1. Thank you for such kind words. As I looked at your blog again and read this comment a thought occurred to me. The way is narrow but grace is broad. Let’s keep walking!

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  4. Reblogged this on The Narrow Gateway and commented:
    Hi friends,

    Check out this post by Jake Owensby that so aptly captures what The Narrow Gateway is about and what we stand for. We are not trying to be revolutionary or to blaze a new trail. Jesus Christ Himself blazed the trail of life behind the narrow gateway. The apostles followed suit. We follow suit. We just want to follow Jesus and make a difference in the world by surrendering all and obeying Him even when it costs us.

    Be blessed by this one.

    Hugs,
    Toyin (Christian Life Coach and Founder of The Narrow Gateway)

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  5. A very good post. Makes me examine myself and my purpose in life. Following Jesus is hard. He told us about this. That’s why with every challenge I encounter in my faith , I always ask myself if my difficulties are worth it. And my answer is always yes. Thanks for this.

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  6. Your words are celestial music on this one. It’s been a challenging but uplifting day for me and this post is the cherry on top. Thank you for being you and lifting the praises of my Savior!

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    1. Phyllis, I’m glad that these words added a positive note to your day. It’s good to hear that your challenges led to such a positive place. Thanks for continuing to read and for taking the time to touch base. It’s good to be walking together.

      Like

  7. Got it. Thanks.

    Sabrina Evans
    Director of Christian Formation
    Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma
    924 North Robinson
    Oklahoma City, OK 73102
    405 232 4820

    What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

    Like

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