“How to Endure Persecution: Part Two”
by The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Mark 13.14-27
“But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’ —do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
It is a group building activity, a scenario. The scenario is a plane crash in Northern Canada. You and a group of nine people survived; both pilots did not. You have a list of items that were salvaged from the plane and you know that you are 22 miles from a town but there are no roads and you are in the forest in winter.
I experienced this group building activity at a YMCA conference in Salt Lake City. My friend, Howard, was there and we enjoyed the conference speakers as well as the nice restaurants in the town. Howard and I were in the same small group in the scenario activity that needed to decide about what to do with the items from the plane. There were twenty other groups in the meeting room. The direction to each group was to rank the items in terms of level of importance.
The items from the plane were a cigarette lighter with no fuel, some steel wool, a compass, a bottle of whiskey, a loaded gun, an aerial map, a big tarp, candy bars, some newspaper, a small ax, a can of vegetable oil, and an extra shirt and pants for every survivor. After a few people made jokes about drinking the whiskey and eating the chocolate, we got down to the question of ranking.
The ranking of the items was complicated by two impulses: stay put or walk in search of the town. Some people wanted to stay put and wait; others wanted to head out, get moving. My friend, Howard, was quick to say, I’m walking. Howard is a former formula one race car driver so I figured the impulse of those in the group to stay would have no impact upon him. And this was true. In short order Howard convinced the group to walk. Hence the only things of real importance was the air map the loaded gun and the compass and the chocolate bars.
The other items like the tarp and the ax and the clothes and the lighter and papers were ranked lower because they were for shelter not travel.
When our time of discussion was over, the presenter asked for a show of hands to see how many people decided to walk. About 80% of the people raised their hands with our group. The presenter said, okay. All those who raised their hands are dead. If you walked away, you didn’t make it.
Then he began to show how the most important step to take is to build shelter and fire and then be calm, to wait without panic or anxiety. The presenter showed how the steel wool and the flint in the lighter would help the wood shavings cut with the ax and the strips of newspaper catch fire. Next the lid to the oil and the gun were important for drawing attention as was the smoke. Finally he said, the worst thing you could do in the woods when the temperature drops below zero is to drink whiskey: it can freeze in your esophagus.
I looked at Howard and he said, “I am still walking no matter what he says.” “Yeah,” I said, “I’ll get the whiskey follow you.” Neither of us could imagine waiting.
Tom Petty says, “the waiting is the hardest part/ Every day you get one more yard/ You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/ The waiting is the hardest part.” Some people seem wired for patience, for endurance; some people just seem to come to life with a sense of calm. Although I am certainly not as impulsive as I once was, I am still far down the scale on the ability to wait.
If I buy you a Christmas present today and its only October, I want you open it today.
If I get a gift certificate, we must go to the store at once.
The best time to start a project is right now.
Let’s get going. Let’s get it done.
And this works. I have gumption and tenacity and endurance. It is a rare day when I say, there is nothing we can do. No. There is always things you can do. For everyone problem there is usually multiple solutions. The challenge, though, is when the best option, the best solution is to wait. It’s a tough day when the best thing you can do is wait and see.
A number of years ago I did a long study on anger. It was fascinating. I learned so much about life by studying anger. One of the key lessons I learned was how much anger comes from waiting.
We wait for people to change. We wait for them to grow up. We wait for people to get better, to get back to us, to say what they were supposed to say. A great deal of anger is born of waiting with unmet expectations of change. Husbands wait for wives to be what they believe a wife should be and in the unmet expectations anger takes root. A wife waits for a husband to change and often times in the waiting for change anger grows.
Waiting is actually not very hard. An hour can feel like a minute. Yet wait for someone to show up who is late and ten minutes can feel like a year. Waiting with unmet expectations is very hard. It is exhausting. Life should be better; life should be other; this is not how things are supposed to be. These are places where anger exhausts us. I have waited long enough. Well, not really. You just used up all your energy on unmet expectations and now you need to leave.
In the plane scenario, the biggest challenge is the prospect of staying put and waiting for rescue. What if it doesn’t come? To spend hour after hour looking in the sky, listening for the sound of a plane or a helicopter, waiting hour after hour for help, that’s exhausting, challenging.
Our reading today was written to Christians who were waiting for one of two things. They were waiting for Jesus to come from the sky and bring power and glory and rescue. And, they were waiting for the suffering to end.
Through the years one thing I have grown to respect is the incredible hardship of waiting in constant, chronic pain. I have seen people who become saints in the pain; I have seen people erode into a deep well of bitterness. The respect I give is to say, who knows what I would become with such suffering.
When I think of someone who became a saint in the long wait of suffering, I think of woman named Irene Leveck. Irene was kind and crafty and had exquisite taste. She was often called upon to decorate the church for weddings and she maintained all the flower pots in the town. She did this even after the tragic loss of her husband; she did this through the surgeries and the chemotherapies and the radiation treatments to fight her cancer. I loved to watch Irene adjust her wig after her hair had fallen out once again because she did it with such panache.
I can remember one round of chemo had set her way back. So far back I was surprised when she agreed to decorate the sanctuary for a wedding. She had so little energy. She started on Monday, telling me, I can do an hour or so a day. If I just keep at it, I’ll make it. On Friday, the day before the wedding, I found her crying in the sanctuary. The janitor thought the wedding was the night before and had cleaned up all her decorations, put them in the trash.
I will never forget watching her stand up straight, wipe her eyes and say, “well, I better get to it.”
There was no anger, no demand of reprisal or punishment for the janitor. “Well, I better get to it.” Watching her replace all the decorations quietly, persistently, I could see someone who had no expectations. She didn’t expect life to not have tragedy or great trial. She didn’t expect everything to go off without a hitch. She didn’t expect people to be flawless. Mostly she didn’t expect God to keep her from all the hardship, the pain, the loss.
Irene was the sort of person who would have said to the survivors of the plane crash, “well, we better get to it.” I will never have Irene’s sense of style or decorating abilities. I do, though, hope I can become a person with even a bit of her character. To have no expectations and yet still live unto hope.
Our reading today is tough because people are hurting. This is a hard reading because the audience is in real pain. Tragedy. The early church reading Mark was being hunted and killed; they were persecuted and it was not a hypothetical notion of suffering. This was all too real. Hence, our understanding of the words of Jesus, his teaching, our understanding needs to be as real as the pain.
In our reading we can see the need for reality in a curious line. You might have heard it when Justin read the first part when he said, “let the reader understand.” Scholars believe the 13th chapter of Mark circulated like a pamphlet or a flier. Something small enough to pass from person to person; small enough that multiple copies could have been made. And the rationale for this is that people were suffering and this was something they need to read. “Let the reader understand.”
Essentially what is to be understood is this: you need to wait for the storm to pass, for the rescue to come, for challenge to end. But, in the waiting you must not waste your energy on fear and anger that life is not supposed to be this way. “God will not allow this”: this is the message of false messiahs. What he says instead is this: the persecution will come and the persecution will end. It is a part of how things are. And the good will come. The Son of Man will come with power and glory. This too is a part of how things are. Hope without expectations.
We have a joke in our house when things get too maudlin. When someone is speaking in very dark, depressing claims, when things are just bad, getting worse, and will all fall apart, we say, “well, I am thinking you should not be on the crisis hotline tonight. You might not be ready to be the voice of hope.” And then we mock the gloomy one with the bad advice they might give. It’s a fun game and it usually works.
I can’t imagine reading the text from Mark today to someone on the crisis hotline. This might not be the words you offer to someone standing on the ledge about to jump. It is not the easiest to grasp: winter and clouds and the elect, the false messiahs. Yet, once the truth in the teaching takes hold, it does bring salvation.
The salvation comes to us when we are freed from expectations. They are like chains that ruin us. Unmet expectations ruin us with anger, exhaust us with frustration.
Here is the good news. We are not plane crash survivors even though there may be times where our houses look like a plane crashed there. We are not being persecuted and dying at the hands of mad kings. Yet, quite often our responses to challenges seem to be on such a grand scale. That is a fancy way of saying we all can over react, run when we should sit, shout when we should listen, curse when we should bless.
In the end though we are the same as the scenario and the early church persecuted in that we must learn to find the ability to wait without fear, to hope without expectation, to love without demand, to forgive without a required change.
Standing with Irene I felt like I got to see this place, hope without expectation. Her life was a witness to God’s love and mercy that abides in the midst of hardship and tragedy and suffering. I got to see how much greater my patience and hope needed to become to live faithfully. She cast a light on my small problems and manageable fears and said, “well, you better get started.” What do you think: should we get started? Love without demand; hope without expectation; patience without fear; forgiveness without cost? Let’s get to it. Amen.
- Mark 13:14 - 27