Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, who teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity School, identifies three orders of suffering that afflict people today.
First order suffering, which accompanies the human condition, includes illness, death, and grief.
Second order suffering is distress caused by human behavior that may be collective or individual, indirect or direct.
Third order suffering is a new variety that comes when people find themselves spiritually homeless, left to their own devices to deal with distress. Third order suffering often goes unrecognized as suffering, even by its victims.
Rogers-Vaughn identifies the combination of third order suffering and its distortions of the first and second orders as something terribly widespread,
“the new chronic” characteristic of our world. This new chronic is rooted in
extreme, pervasive individualism and produces isolating, calculating, and deadening forms of existence.
What ways of care are available to counteract this new chronic? Rogers-Vaughn believes that the primary resource is healthy collectives and movements (including faith communities) that aid people to find their footing, that embody the care of soul. These collectives do not give precise measurements for the future, but provide spaces where we can safely listen together in hope.
In times of prosperity the Biblical prophets pronounced harsh criticism of the status quo. In times of turmoil and difficulty the prophets’ statements turned to reassurance of God’s love and support for God’s people. A wonderful example of the latter comes from the prophet Isaiah:
“Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” (Isaiah 30-20-21)
Presently we are certainly experiencing times of adversity and affliction. Even though Isaiah’s words were addressed to ancient Israel long ago they speak directly to our condition today. They assure us that even as we are faced with difficult choices to make in situations of uncertainty, God has not abandoned us but is still supporting and guiding us. As we take each new step forward we can listen carefully for God’s voice, telling us individually and in community, “This is the way; walk in it.”
Our reading for Sunday is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s one that we’ll read a lot during this Ordinary time.
It’s also Paul’s last letter (as far as we know). Unlike the rest of his Letters, it was not written to a congregation that he founded. Rather, it was to introduce himself to the large exiled Jewish community in Rome. That community was predominantly Christian, and the center of the civilized world at that time. Written in Greek, the common language for educated people of that time, it uses the diatribe – questions that are meant to elicit comment and opinion from those hearing it. (Letters, in those times, were read aloud to house churches. Worship took place in homes, before formal houses of worship were established.) Paul hoped to preach to the Roman congregation (and to seek support from them for a journey to Spain). Though some scholars dispute the length, it is his longest letter.
In it, Paul seems to have resolved some questions that he wrestled with in earlier letters. He makes no distinction between Jewish and Christian. He also discourses eloquently on the Spirit and the law, placing the Spirit in context of living under the law. He draws distinctions between living under the law and living under the Spirit, as he does in this week’s reading.
Sadly, Paul’s journey to Rome ended in his execution in 64 or 67. But the gift of his Letters is still with us, educating us and informing us on our faith journey.
Thanks be to God.
Raised on a hardscrabble Texas farm, W. F. Hightower, nicknamed High, came of age during the Great Depression. High was not at all philosophical, but would sometimes express his political beliefs by saying, “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”
In recent decades, public conversation in America has shifted. We talk little about society and much about the economy. The economy seems to have taken on a life of its own. Preoccupied by incessant economic challenges, we ignore the common good the economy exists to serve.
Sabbath observance was a powerful institution among the Jews in the time of Jesus. At its best, it celebrated God’s gifts of life, freedom, and rest. The sabbath was a great equalizer, kept by rich and poor in the same ways. But sometimes sabbath observance was distorted and became oppressive. So Jesus had to declare that the sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath.
In twenty-first century America, we must recall that the economy was made for humans, not humans for the economy. We can experience again how everybody does better when everybody does better.
Two weeks ago while chopping an onion I sliced into the index finger of my left hand. It bled quite a lot. I bandaged it tightly and went to a local walk-in medical facility to have it examined and treated. Right away the nurse took the bandage off and ran lots of water on the cut, which started its bleeding again. Then she poured a healthy amount of rubbing alcohol on it, and that stung for a while as the bleeding continued. (This is called “irrigating a wound.”) Later a physician examined and bandaged the finger. The wound has now healed well, with no infection.
Since then I’ve realized that what happened with my finger is akin to what happens with Biblical prophecy. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before Him made pronouncements that were intended as a means toward healing. Prophets were not so much predictors of the future as they were analysts and commentators on what was going on currently in people’s relationships with God and with one another—what was wounded that needed to be healed, beginning with irrigation of the wounds. If the prophets were true and not false what they said offended people. (Jesus said, “A prophet is without honor in his own land.” Mark 6.4) It was the false prophets who said, “Everything is fine just as it is.” The true prophets said, “Here’s what’s wrong with what’s happening now and here’s how it needs to change.” Ouch.
Our customary lives have been profoundly disturbed by the viral pandemic, economic disruption, and social protest and this has become a time of deep and frightening questioning. How are we to live in society—how are we to live in the Church? Everyday routines are interrupted and taken for granted assumptions are challenged. Voices of prophecy surround us, some true and some false. What’s being said can hurt a lot—like alcohol on an open wound. Yet we need not be afraid to listen to prophetic critique even when it stings in the moment. If it’s true prophecy it’s a message that God loves us and is ultimately concerned for our well being, which is like what the nurse did first off with my cut finger. She cleansed it thoroughly, thus preparing it for healing.
This Saturday, we celebrate the Feast of the founder of Western Monasticism. Benedict of Nursia was born in about AD 480 and died in about AD 543. Sent to Rome to study, he found life there abhorrent, and retreated to the countryside. There, he became a hermit, known for his miracles and good works. The monastic community near his hermitage begged him to become their abbot. That community became the Benedictine Monastery in Monte Cassio, Italy.
There he developed the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Based on Ora et Labora (Pray and Work), it prescribed eight hours a day for prayer, eight hours a day for work and eight hours a day for sleep.
Today, 1500 years later, his Rules are still used in Benedictine monasteries and convents around the world. Benedictine communities base their collective lives on prayer, work, study, hospitality and renewal.
But the Rules are not just for clergy.
Benedictine groups around the country offer retreats, annual symposia and Benedictine Way Groups. Lay people can immerse themselves in simple rhythms of living that follow the Benedictine rules.
Ora et Labora – good principles to inform our lives today.
The coming July 4 holiday brings with it the question of how best to pray for
our nation. This anonymous prayer, only lightly edited since it appeared in an Episcopal Church publication more than fifty years ago, is one I have found very durable. If it proves useful for you, you may wish to share it with others.
Prayer for Sound Government
Almighty God, heavenly Father,
we ask you to bless our country,
that it may be a blessing to the world.
Help us to adopt aims and policies
that are in accordance with your will.
May we see ourselves as others see us,
and avoid self-deception and hypocrisy.
Lead us to sound government,
equal justice in law,
and incorruptible news media.
Grant us a true sense of fairness
in our dealings with one another,
and a spirit of service
that will banish pride of place
and give equality of opportunity to all.
This we ask in the name of the One
who taught that only the truth
can make us free,
your child Jesus Christ our Savior.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington