Sermons at Union Congregational Church
Preached by The Reverend Gail L. Miller, Pastor
March 18, 2018 Fifth Sunday in Lent
Meaning in Suffering
“Why do you not commit suicide?” And with this question, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl offered his patients a key with which to unlock the chains of their afflictions. What he was really asking them was, What gives meaning to your life? And his patients responded. Here was a doctor they could trust, whose theories were backed by personal experience.
You see, Frankl was born in 1905, in a Jewish section of Vienna, Austria. In 1921, at age sixteen, he gave his first lecture on “The Meaning of Life,” already forming his philosophy of psychological healing through the discovery of meaning.
Frankl affirmed that people are spiritual beings with free will, and can shape their lives by choosing and working toward meaningful goals. The psychiatrist doesn’t tell the patient what those goals should be, but helps the patient in a quest to discover them.
He specialized in the treatment of depression and suicide at the University of Vienna, organizing a counseling program for students in 1930. He then began his own practice, but after the Nazi invasion of Austria in 1938 he was only allowed to treat Jewish patients. He became the director of a clinic for Jews where, at risk of his own life, he made false diagnoses to protect the mentally ill from euthanasia.
In 1939, he could have immigrated to the United States, but chose to stay with his elderly parents. Three years later, he, his parents, and his wife, Tilly, were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Viktor and Tilly had married the previous year. (The Nazis had forced her to abort their expected child).
Within half a year of arriving at the camp, Viktor’s father died. Viktor, Tilly, and his mother were sent to Auschwitz in 1944, where his mother was taken directly to the gas chamber. Tilly was moved to Bergen-Belsen, where she died in 1945; Viktor was sent to be a slave laborer in Dachau.
There he started an underground psychiatric practice for suicidal prisoners: We had to teach the despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us, he explained later. The key to survival was to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and to carry it out to the best of your knowledge.
After the Allied forces liberated the camp, he made his way back to Vienna, where he learned of the death of his wife and his mother. For a year, he was close to despair. But in 1946 he returned to work. Despair is suffering without meaning, he wrote. If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.
That year, over the course of nine days, he dictated his best-known book, published in English as Man’s Search for Meaning. And at the heart of the meaning that we discover is love: The salvation of humanity is through love and in love. (Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning; Beacon Press, 1959)
There is a famous painting called the Isenheim Altarpiece. It was painted by Matthias Grünewald in 1512–1516 (regarded as his masterpiece) for a monastery in France which specialized in hospital work. The monks there were known for their care of those suffering with the plague as well as other skin diseases. And when Grünewald painted Christ on the cross, he painted him with pitted plague-type sores all over his body, showing the patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions.
In fact, the image of the crucifix did not even become a thing until the middle ages during this time of the plague, when a suffering Jesus was what the church and the people needed to be assured that God had NOT abandoned them in their suffering.
Jesus on the cross. Protestants don’t particularly emphasize Jesus on the cross. Our tradition has preferred the empty cross which proclaims and emphasizes that Jesus didn’t stay dead, but was raised proving that God is more powerful than even the worst that humanity can bring – including suffering and death.
But I wonder if by keeping Jesus off the cross, and not before our eyes, if we who’ve grown up and in this tradition have inadvertently then, also kept him at a distance from the rest of our lives, and what we believe about him. Keeping Jesus – including his suffering on the cross – before our eyes is important. Some of you might be thinking, Oh here she goes, getting all “Catholic” on us again. But you know, before we are Protestant, or Catholic, or Congregational, or whatever brand we are, we are CHRISTIAN. And a deep, rich, and full faith believes in the WHOLE story of Jesus – which includes his suffering on the cross.
Because only there – do we discover any meaning in our own suffering – and even more important, do we come to know the love that God has FOR US in our own particular suffering. That God does NOT abandon us in our suffering.
And isn’t that what we ALL need? And not just US – but ALL PEOPLE, everywhere? Isn’t that the first question people ask in a tragedy? Where was God?
In the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas School last month,
Or when the towers fell,
Or when your child died.
Where is God?
In debilitating chronic illness,
In the depression that never fully goes away,
In the job search that goes on and on for way too long,
Where is God? He is with you! This I believe! God has not, does not, will not abandon us. And Jesus on the cross is how we can be sure of this!
J. R. R. Tolkien is now most known for his Lord of the Rings fantasy novels, but you may not know that he was best friends with C. S. Lewis (of the Narnia books) and a devout Christian. When he was young he fought in the trenches with the British Army in WWI – an experience which had a major impact on his fiction. During WWII while Britain struggled against the Axis powers of evil, he wrote these words to his son Christopher:
I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days – quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil – historically considered. But the historic vision is, of course, not the only one. … No [one] can estimate what is really happening in the light of eternity. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success – in vain: preparing the soil for unexpected good to sprout in. (p. 76, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, by J. R. R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien, Mariner Books, 2000)
Tolkien describes the powerful, successful work of evil as amounting to a preparation of soil, a preparation of soil where unexpected good will sprout.
Tolkien talks about soil. Jesus talks about seed.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
Both of these are statements of faith. They point to what is beyond our ordinary experience, and to that which transforms our experience.
In the case of Jesus, he looks ahead to what will soon happen to him. Like a single seed, he will be buried in the earth. His enemies will think he’s dead, but he will be raised to a life more abundant than before, and become the hope of countless people to come after him.
It is Jesus’ resurrection which gives Tolkien the ability to believe in the sprouting of unexpected good from the soil over which evil has labored. But to catch a glimpse of these things requires the eyes of faith.
Jesus promises that God is always at work, drawing life from death, calling what looks shameful something beautiful, turning suffering and desolation into a time and place of revelation. All of which can give us a new perspective on those parts of our lives – and our very selves – that we feel are dying, shameful, or desolate.
God is at work…even in the darkest, hardest, loneliest parts of our lives. God can bring something good and beautiful from suffering. God not only does not abandon us during the painful times of our lives, but is even at work using those moments for something good.
But… and this is really important!… saying God is at work in and through the difficult and tragic elements of our lives, is not the same as saying God causes them.
God embraces the God-rejecting world in love (3:16), wrestling life from death, surprising us by being able to redeem even the deepest pain, assuring us that while He never desires that we suffer, He can work through that suffering for good, even – ESPECIALLY – when we can’t understand it.
God is here. God is at work.
God is not afraid of those parts of our lives that frighten us.
God will not give up.
God is on the side of life and love.
And the love, mercy, and life God offers is stronger than
any hate, suffering, and death that life throws at us.
I really believe this! And I hope you do too!