The Price of Glory

The beatitudes are a sort of Christian resume. They are a familiar passage for us. Also known as the Sermon on the Mount, this is a powerful and controversial teaching of Jesus. He lists the individuals who are blessed because of their particular condition or status in life.  I suspect it was as confusing a list when Jesus preached it as it is for us now. If you were looking to hire someone, would you want someone who says that they are meek or poor in spirit? What does that even mean in a modern culture? Why would Jesus say that “meekness” is a blessed state of life when we would classify it as a detriment? We might laud the efforts of peacemakers but run from that position if someone offered it to us. Who wants to be sent to Israel, Ukraine, or the Minneapolis police department for peacemaking negotiations? Working for peace seems noble but it is risky as well. And what about those who are in mourning? My guess is that they don’t feel blessed to be in that emotional state?

There is no doubt that Jesus inverted the world’s values in lifting up these human circumstances above all others. He did not celebrate those who are wealthy, proud, accomplished, or well-respected by their peers. He didn’t glorify those who organize well or those who foster a sense of teamwork on their projects. Jesus ignored the very characteristics we put on a résumé to make sure that ours rises to the top of the pile.

I visited an elderly woman recently in a care facility. She had asked to meet with a chaplain. Communication was difficult with her. At times, she scrunched up her face and was tearful about her life circumstances. But she also had this beautiful smile that she flashed as we talked. I wondered what would have landed her in this group home, away from family. There were silences when neither of us spoke. Her emotions shifted erratically between broad smiles and tearful moments, with no clear reason for the changes.

About fifteen minutes into our visit, she looked me in the eyes and, with one of her sweet smiles, said, “I love Jesus.“ Her speech was garbled so I repeated it in the form of a question: “You love Jesus?“ She continued to smile and nodded. I smiled back and slowly said “Jesus loves me, this I know.“ She bobbed her head so I continued: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong: they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.” She moved her head to the familiar rhythm of the song. As our time approached for me to leave, I asked if she would like me to close with a prayer. She nodded her approval. I offered a prayer and an “amen.” I felt moved to ask her if she knew the Lord’s prayer. In slow and slurred speech, she started reciting it: “Our Father…” I saw that as an invitation to continue together, so we took our time, saying those ancient words of conversation with God. I left her room, certain that I was the one to receive the blessing from her.

Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those dwelling in care facilities where visits are few and memories grow dim. Blessed are those who mourn the loss of spouse or child. Blessed are those with declining abilities and aching loneliness. Blessed are the peacemakers who labor for peace no matter where they find themselves. These are attributes that may not be on resumes. But these are the very people toward whom we gravitate. Jesus beckons to us with strange words of promise: “Blessed are you who feel the pain of your poverty, your failure, and your weakness, for you will surely find God’s strength and comfort as you acknowledge your need before Him.” (The poverty paradox by Krister Sairsingh)

The paradox of the Gospel is that Jesus promises glory for those who dare to confess their unworthiness!

Paul wrote a letter to the Romans. Our passage today begins with Paul stating that we have been adopted as God’s children. As in our culture, this was a process which meant full inclusion in and rights to family membership. What beautiful words those were for the believers in the Roman church. We find it unimaginable that God claims us as adopted children when we have not petitioned for such exclusive family membership! But the glow of the promise suddenly dims when Paul goes on to say that belonging to Christ means that we will suffer with Him! It sounds a lot like Jesus’ warning to disciple wannabes: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The air hisses out of the party balloon. The ink isn’t yet dry on the adoption papers and we question our commitment. “This is not the family for which I prayed!” We want the privileges without the cost.

A clergy friend of mine wrote about this passage and said that he didn’t mind the notion of cheap grace for his own life. I can picture him smiling as he confessed his struggle with the requirements of discipleship. He offered these words: “I like the idea that there’s much I need not suffer because Jesus already did; I like the idea that God simply chooses to love each one of us and there’s nothing any of us can do to cause God to love us any more or any less; I like taking ‘not by works, but by grace’ as literally as I possibly can and extrapolating it as far as I can.”

As parents, employers, or neighbors to those who are not neighborly, we are warned against offering grace as a cheap commodity. Let’s not reward bad behavior by letting it continue. Punishment is just and sometimes people have to learn a lesson. So why would we suffer? Why would we have to suffer with Jesus if He has already endured the cross? Didn’t He redeem us from our sin through His crucifixion? I thought the cross was a one-and-done penance that sets me free?

When we get to the end of this passage we begin to understand the requirements. We suffer with Jesus so that we may also be glorified with Him.

It’s difficult for me to name any great suffering I’ve experienced because of my faith. In fact, my Christian beliefs have turned into a career that paid my mortgage and my grocery bill, my kids’ college expenses, and a few theological books along the way (I’m discovering my book fanaticism as I pack out my office!). I have had the luxury of processing my beliefs and preaching my theology for more than thirty years to anyone who shows up on a Sunday. What do I know about suffering for the Gospel?

Current statistics from opendoorsusa offer us this glimpse into Christianity around the globe. One in eight Christians worldwide experiences high levels of persecution. 309 million Christians are subjected to high levels of persecution and discrimination. In the past year, 4761 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons in 50 different countries. 4488 were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in those 50 countries. 4277 churches or Christian buildings were attacked in a year’s time in those 50 countries. The number of Christians killed in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa has risen by 2.7%, year after year. (, 2022)

The paradox of the Gospel is that there is glory for those who speak on behalf of Christ. However, for many, their sacrifice is greater than we can fathom!

What is the practical significance of glory? We read in Romans 8: 6: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” By sending Jesus to deal with sin, God has done what we and the Law could not. We are offered a life completely free of the burdens, sorrows, and ailments of this life. So what does this “glory” look like? It’s not a word we commonly use!

Perhaps it is something like this: As you lay in a hospital bed, day in and day out, with a foggy mind and emotional instability, you smile at your visitor and say, “I love Jesus.” Glory shimmers in that moment!

Is that assurance in the end stage of life worth the suffering? What are you willing to sacrifice to know Jesus in the depth of your soul when nothing else seems solid? Proclaiming the Gospel is costly! The disciples learned that lesson repeatedly and painfully. Jesus suffered in the wilderness and all the way to Gethsemane. The price of His glory increased with each obedient step of His journey.

Perhaps that glory shines out to us in the least likely places.

In 1979, Mayor Jane Byrne of Chicago chose to move into the urban housing development called Cabrini Green. She did this to bring attention to the needs of that impoverished population. While there were some good things that happened in the 25 days that she (allegedly) lived there, it turned into an occupied territory for the residents. Many were frisked, questioned and evicted. She intended to have an apartment there the whole time of her term as mayor but she left after 25 days, favoring her Gold Coast home just eight blocks away.

Marion Stamps was an activist who raised her children in Cabrini Green.  She mopped up the negative impact of Mayor Byrne’s time there. Marion was the on-site prophet and activist, a trusted insider effecting long-term change. Mayor Byrne’s initial surge in popularity disappeared when people saw that the changes were short-lived and she wasn’t willing to live among her impoverished constituents for even one month. The housing area fell into disrepair rather quickly after she moved out. The greatest hope for this neighborhood didn’t come from the top politician in the area. It came from a woman who fought against the violence and despair of the projects to raise her own family of five daughters, all of whom became public servants. What does it look like to effectively and authentically renovate an area where murder happens on a regular basis? Marion wasn’t willing to sit idly by. She had a passion for those around her and sacrificed her time and energy, working against an indifferent ruling class to improve the future of her neighbors.

Can you see the glory shining out from a housing development called Cabrini Green?

We continually learn that Jesus and our culture each expect something very different from us. My clergy friend was brutally honest about his discomfort with this text. Robert wrote, “’Take up your cross’ has always sounded bitter and severe to me. And maybe one day being a follower of Jesus will demand something extremely painful of me. But for now, it seems to be as simple as a trade-off, as simple as letting go of the inconveniences I whine about—parsonage living, congregants who don’t seem to ‘get it,’ conference paperwork—because those, I have to confess, are the things that presently obscure God’s glory for me.”

I wonder what obscures God’s glory for you?

This colleague complained about persistent malaise the last few times he came to our lectionary study group. I missed his insights and candor as we met without him. I was surprised to learn he was hospitalized and, as quickly as I heard that, word spread that he had died—of a cancer they only discovered the final week of his life. Just like that, his life was over and his reflection on challenging Biblical texts was cut short. He was given rest from his wrestling match with the requirements of discipleship. I still grieve his absence.

His final words of reflection on this inversion of the world’s values minister to me still today: “Is the gift of the Holy Spirit something worth suffering for in order to receive it? I think so. Especially if ‘suffering’ is understood simply as what must be relinquished in order to receive…the price of glory, as it were. This doesn’t solve the ‘must’ problem. But it does offer me a more matter of factness about the whole thing. Make your choice, Robert, and know that it means challenges and aggravations, but so what? That’s a small price to pay for glory.”


The Sacred Conversation

I ran into Peg at Meijer several years ago. We started to talk and she exclaimed to me how an in-depth Bible Study she had taken at the church had saved her. Peg lost both her adult children to separate tragic accidents that happened about ten years apart. A deep chasm of grief separated her from her world for years and understandably so. As we stood by the leeks and lettuces, she said that reading the scriptures and praying with the same small group for a year was the catalyst—finally—to her healing. The dark cloud of sorrow began to lift and glimmers of joy began to peek through. My first thought when I learned she had died was to rejoice that she was reunited with her beloved children. As we walk through the Lenten season, I celebrate the rescue she found in scripture and prayer.

I’m struck that we don’t read anything deeply any more. We are internet addicts. On-line publishers accommodate us by offering short articles that can be perused quickly and give just enough information to satisfy our curiosity. One of my assignments in January was to find a research article about a subject that interested me, read it, then present it to my classmates. The articles had to come from some academic database that requires membership. A good research article will tell you how they collected their data so that you know the results weren’t skewed—and they’re honest about how they did choose a particular angle. I read paragraphs several times over to understand them. Reading in depth about meaningful subjects is not something I am accustomed to! Who wants to go deep on a particular subject? I think of how the disciples wanted to stay put in Capernaum and settle for a local ministry in a small fishing village. But Jesus moved on! He asked His disciples—and that includes us—to go deep. Who can and who does?

Paul spent three weeks in Thessalonica, teaching in the local synagogue. At some point the Jews rejected Paul’s message and atempted to drive him out. Paul and his colleagues had to escape under the cover of darkness and, sadly, Paul was never able to return there again. So he wrote two letters to this young congregation to guide them as new Christians. This letter is the much-needed Constitution and By-Laws of the Early Church that was still in formation.

A few of Paul’s commands from the fifth chapter of this first letter are these. Recognize those leaders who work hard among you. Honor and appreciate them. Care for the poor. Never repay evil for evil. Rather, strive ALWAYS for what is good. Rejoice in God’s presence. This verb indicates not just a feeling of joy but an active commitment toward living a joyful life. Because Paul was convinced that God was always at work on behalf of the believers, he urged the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Rejoicing and giving thanks became forms of worship for Paul. Holy Spirit utterances are not to be blindly accepted because someone claims to have the Spirit. The proper course is to “test” them for their authenticity. Leaders in the Church were not to be chosen based on wealth and status, which was the usual requisite for other organizations in the Greco/Roman world. Congregation members and leaders were to share responsibility for mutual care and encouragement. All worked together for good on behalf of a hurting world. Paul forbids that we seek retaliation against our enemies. He says that we are to seek to do good. When we look at these exhortations, we remember how some of the disciples of Jesus, as He instructed them on what it meant to live the Gospel, exclaimed to each other, “This is a hard teaching.” And that was the last Jesus saw of them!

A final command reminds us of how difficult it can be to follow Jesus: “Pray without ceasing.” As we’ve wrestled with the horror of the Ukrainian siege, our congregation members have remembered that we are to pray without ceasing. In 300AD, the Desert Fathers and Mothers headed out into forsaken wilderness areas to pray continually. Some called themselves “Akoimitai” which means “non-sleepers.” The newly converted believers in Thessalonica needed guidance and Paul reminded them that praying without ceasing is an attitude and orientation toward life. Equally important is rejoicing always and giving thanks in all circumstances. People looking in on such a community would either write it off as deluded…OR…they would be attracted to its beauty.

So how do we pray without ceasing? What defines this sacred conversation? Where do we turn during this Lenten season for guidance and inspiration? If I were to give you a course syllabus, I would direct you to the psalms. Those are prayers written about 3000 years ago that still echo our experiences today. There are even “imprecatory” or “cursing” psalms. You know how it sounds: “How long, O Lord…” or “Why do my enemies surround me…” or “Where have You gone from my presence…” All emotions are allowed as modeled by the psalmists.

The Jesus Prayer developed in the desert in the fourth century as monks looked for a way to make prayer as regular as their breathing. It was short and confessional: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They found ways to connect the praying to their breathing, inhaling for the first two phrases then exhaling for the last two. Breathing this prayer became second nature over time. It can still be a centering prayer for us.

Perhaps you have heard of Brother Lawrence. He was a monk who lived in Paris in the 1600’s. For ten years he tried the monastic methods of prayer which only frustrated him. He was the cook and dishwasher for the brothers and discovered that prayer came most naturally when he talked with God in the kitchen. He grew to know and love the God of pots and pans. The style of prayer attributed to him is “practicing the presence of God.” His prayer was attentiveness in each moment which is evident in something he wrote in one of his letters: “I turn my little omelette in the pan for love of God.”

Today we talk about “vertical habits”, linking words or phrases to worship habits. One such acronym is ACTS: A for adoration, a prayer that sounds like “I love you.” C for confession which sounds like “I’m sorry.” T stands for Thanksgiving which is voiced as “Thank you.” S is for supplication which are prayers of “Help.” I love you. I’m sorry. Thank you. Help. An additional set of prayer habits are Lament or “Why?”; Illumination or “I’m listening.”; Service or “What can I do?”, and; Blessing which sounds like “Bless you.” These are helpful guides when we get stuck in only one type of prayer when we turn to God.

I wonder how you might practice the presence of God in your work and family lives? With what object from your work life might you replace the pots and pans from Brother Lawrence’s devotional life? How do you come to know God not just in Lent but every day and waking hour?

Jane Marczewski gained recognition on the recent season of America’s Got Talent. 31-year-old Jane was fighting cancer when she courageously went on stage. She sang beautifully an original song entitled, “It’s OK” and received the coveted golden buzzer. She had to withdraw from the contest as her health declined and then died in February. In an interview, she spoke of the deep faith she developed while battling terminal cancer. She teaches us about prayer through her words that live on:

“I have had cancer three times now, and I have barely passed thirty. There are times when I wonder what I must have done to deserve such a story. I fear sometimes that when I die and meet with God, that He will say I disappointed Him, or offended Him, or failed Him. Maybe He’ll say I just never learned the lesson, or that I wasn’t grateful enough. But one thing I know for sure is this: He can never say that He did not know me,”

Paul did not write to give thanks for all circumstances, but in all circumstances. He had absolute conviction, gained of pain and suffering, that God is always at work on behalf of the beloved community. That is reason enough to give thanks and rejoice. Jane or Nightbirde, as she called herself, reminded us that our prayers don’t need to be polite. They must be honest.

“I am God’s downstairs neighbor, banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. I show up at His door every day. Sometimes with songs, sometimes with curses. Sometimes apologies, gifts, questions, demands. Sometimes I use my key under the mat to let myself in. Other times, I sulk outside until He opens the door to me Himself. I have called Him a cheat and a liar, and I meant it. I have told Him I wanted to die, and I meant it. Tears have become the only prayer I know. Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset.”

The disciples wanted to stay put but Jesus called them out into the deep. In Lent we have an opportunity to immerse ourselves in meaningful writings and deepened prayer. We ask ourselves when we read scripture passages, “What is the larger story that surrounds this scene? How can I make better sense of this so that it lands in my life in a fitting manner?” Mark up your Bibles. Earmark your devotional books. Try praying in a new setting or a new position. I have prayed laying prone on the floor and I can assure you that that position elicits a very different emotional response than resting my head on a pillow or talking to God in my car! Sometimes I’ve felt led in prayer to get more specific in my requests. So I have…and then, sometime later, I realize that exactly what I asked for happened. I understand that God is showing off with a sort of “Can you see Me now?” act. Other times I’ve realized in these sacred conversations that I’m limiting God’s power by asking for too little. So I broaden my prayers and invite God to show up in power, to knock my socks off by answering my prayers in a far better fashion than I ever would have thought to request! And it happens! I realize, with great humility, that God knows me and loves me.

Do we genuinely believe that “in all things God works for good for those who love Him?” If so, do we pray with expectancy? Do we hold God to those Biblical promises? Or do we think we have to be polite and can only begin each prayer with “Thank you?”

I’ll let the singing theologian and suffering servant offer us one final lesson through her words about the sacred conversation she kept going with God even when she lay on the bathroom floor, sickened from her cancer treatments:

“Call me bitter if you want to—that’s fair. Count me among the angry, the cynical, the offended, the hardened. But count me also among the friends of God. For I have seen Him in rare form. I have felt His exhale, laid in His shadow, squinted to read the message He wrote for me in the grout. I’m sad too. If an explanation would help, He would write me one—I know it… I remind myself that I’m praying to the God who let the Israelites stay lost for decades. They begged to arrive in the Promised Land, but instead He let them wander, answering prayers they didn’t pray. For forty years, their shoes didn’t wear out. Fire lit their path each night. Every morning, He sent them mercy-bread from heaven…I look hard for the answers to the prayers that I didn’t pray. I look for the mercy-bread that He promised to bake fresh for me each morning. The Israelites called it manna, which means ‘what is it?’ That’s the same question I’m asking—again, and again. There’s mercy here somewhere—but what is it? What is it? What is it?”