Sunday, December 06, 2009

“The Ring of Weakness”

The One Ring in Peter Jackson's films.Image via Wikipedia

For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. 2 Corinthians 13:4

In Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” the plot centers on the Ring of Sauron. The Dark Lord Sauron created the One Ring to rule the other Rings of Power, as the ultimate weapon in his campaign to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth. A frail, small hobbit by the name of Frodo was given the ring and discovered the overwhelming evil that came with that ring’s power. As a Christ figure, he refused to use the power of the ring of Sauron. Rather, he determined to return the ring to where it was forged to destroy it. He suffered and nearly died in the process. Yet, he embraced a life of weakness and suffering rather that take up the corrupting of power that was in his grasp.

Three great authors lived through WWII and expressed their experiences of war’s evil in writing. C.S Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and J.R.R. Tolkien. We see in Tolkien’s writing his response to the evil of corrupting power. Tolkien had a very sad life; his father died when he was four; his mother died when he was twelve. All his best friends, but one, died in WWII, when he was 25. “How did he handle it? He wrote stories. They were suffused with the deep kind of hope. A hope that he called a hope beyond the walls of the world. A hope that was so deep and so great that it can sweeten a world in which everything wears away and there is no remedy . . .” (Tim Keller)

As Christians we write stories. We write stories of hope with our lives. As followers of Christ it might be better said, we listen to and enter into the stories of others. We chose to engage their pain, joys, suffering and recovery rather than curse pain and run to power for safety.

As human beings we are all tempted to take up the ring of power to get what we want, to possess, achieve, and control others. We crave the ring for shelter from pain, horror and the calamities of life. As believers in Christ we have a call, not to power, but in some distinctive sense, to weakness. Like the frail and vulnerable Frodo, we choose a different path. It is a road that takes us away from power and right into the weakness of others - and ultimately our own weakness. Like the Psalmist calling to God, we take up the cause of the weak:

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Psalm 82:3

For many who are in ministry we serve because we believe the way of Christ is better than the way of power and self-preservation. The way of Christ is unconventional and counter-intuitive:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10

Henri Nouwen speaks of this “ring of weakness.” He spent nearly two decades of teaching at the Menninger Foundation Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and at the University of Notre Dame, Yale University and Harvard University. Then in a special calling, went to share his life with mentally handicapped people at the L'Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, Canada. After a long period of declining energy, which he chronicled in his final book, Sabbatical Journey, he died in September 1996 from a sudden heart attack.

Nouwen embodied in his second career the call to abandon power and embrace weakness. In his book Compassion he writes about the “downward pull” of Christ.

"Jesus' compassion's is characterized by a downward pull. That is what disturbs us. We cannot even think about ourselves in terms other than those of an upward mobility in which we strive for better lives, higher salaries, and more prestigious positions. Thus, we are deeply disturbed by a God who embodies a downward movement. Instead of striving for a higher position, more power and more influence, Jesus moves, as Karl Barth says, from 'the heights to the depth, from victory to defeat, from riches to poverty, from triumph to suffering, from life to death.' Jesus' whole life and mission involve accepting powerlessness and revealing in this powerlessness the limitlessness of God's love. Here we see what compassion means. It is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it in the upward pull. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there." (Henri Nouwen, "Compassion," p 27.)

Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Luke 6:36

Paul reports that his sufferings are not a denial of the Gospel; rather, they are a confirmation of it:

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 2 Cor 4:10-12: 10

As Tim Keller reflects:

“Just as Jesus’ suffering and death led to greater life, so it can for us. Paul found that living in Jesus, the same sort of thing happens. His death seems to led to greater life . . .. I’ve known professionals who wanted to work with the less fortunate, those not well served by their profession – the poor – and gave up certain wealth and recognition in order to do so. When one does this, they sort of fall off the map professionally, or go off the radar. They give up advancing in their profession and it’s a career death. But it’s greater life for those they serve . . .. when you suffer because you live unselfishly, your death leads to some greater life for those you serve and those around you.”

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 1 Corinthians 2:3 (ESV)

Being human is painful, and we find some the deepest things about being human in our pain. As Christians we affirm people’s humanness, not by removing or avoiding their pain, but by moving into it with them.

In Matthew chapter fifteen the Syro-Phoenician woman, tormented by the pain of vexed daughter, cried to Jesus for help. But Jesus did not answer. The disciples grew tired and nervous with the silence. They begged Jesus to end the silence and send her away. But Jesus stood with the women in the silence. In that stillness of Christ she found herself, her faith and wholeness. My prayer for us today is that we would be compassionate. Let us continue to embrace Christ’s ring of weakness. May we stand with folks in their silence, while they share their stories, experience their pain and fears, and work through their human struggles.

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV)

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