Suffering and Service

We get all kinds of review copies of books here at the magazine--most are mediocre, a few a brilliant, and more than a few just plain suck. There's no other way to put it.

I came across one of those books last week. The authors will remain anonymous (one is a colleague that I greatly respect and I don't know what they were thinking)

It begins with this bit from Psalm : :

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.

But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

Here's the author's take on what the psalm means:

God says we will be blessed (happy, fortunate, prosperous, and enviable) if we spend more time in His Word and less time with clueless people.

As my dad would say, "Give me a break." Anyone who spends time in the word will know that being blessed by God often means suffering. Daniel and the lion's den, Joseph in prison, Jesus on the cross--they don't fit into the "God loves me and wants me to be happy, fortunate, prosperous and enviable" model, as far as I can tell. But maybe that's just me.

Let's see--Jesus had 12 apostles. All of them came to horrible ends--11 murders and one suicide. Still nothing happy there.

It may not sell as many copies as the Purpose Driven Life or the Prayer of Jabez, but is this excerpt is any indication, Mark Galli's book "Jesus Mean and Wild: Why We Need the Holiness of Christ" (due out next year) is exactly the tonic we happy Evangelicals need to save us from the "god

Here's how it starts: "God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life."

Galli goes on:

That message isn't mentioned in pass-along tracts or in bestselling books. It isn't proclaimed in praise choruses or PowerPoint sermons. We've heard plenty about the god-of-the-wonderful-plan and the god-of-possibility-thinking. Recently we've been told to follow Our Bliss, which is another god disguised as the True God. And in every age, lots of people follow the god-who-will-do-well-by-me-if-I-do-well-by-him.

But the God who plans to make our lives difficult? And if he really loves us, he makes our lives really difficult?

Yet according to the Gospels, especially Mark, this seems to be "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ" (Mark 1:1, NRSV).

Suffering, Galli argues, is the way God refines his followers. It toughens them up for the arduous work of serving others, the way that boot camp hardens soldiers or hazing hardens firemen.

He draws on a powerful essay from Tom Downey, author of "The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge At Rescue 2 Firehouse

Downey was writing in response to allegations of hazing by New York firefighters. Hazing, he wrote in a New York Times piece , was an essential part of a fireman's training.

Like soldiers, firefighters see things that nobody else wants to: bodies burned to cinders, people in pain at the end of their lives, best friends dead at an early age. But soldiers typically see these things in foreign lands, which can allow them to more easily separate this extreme experience from their everyday lives. A fireman, however, must pull a screaming burn victim out of a fire, then drive home to dinner with his wife and children. Make no mistake about it: this is a job that exacts a tremendous psychological toll. And, since Sept. 11, 2001, that toll has increased immeasurably.

The physical toll is also remarkable: smoke headaches, sore joints, a perpetually runny nose, deep cuts and bruises from crawling in the dark, lungs and throat filled with black mucus, and a powerful nausea that can make a guy bend over and retch. One Rescue 2 veteran, Jack Pritchard, dragged a crib out of a room so hot that the plastic bars of the crib melted in his hands. My uncle Ray Downey, a former captain of Rescue 2, badly scorched his lungs when he ran without an air tank into a fire to save a young man. (He rose to deputy chief before he was killed on 9/11.)

Firehouses need to create men like these, men who are willing to risk their lives or get badly injured in order to save others. Amid all the hazing, firefighters are really seeking an answer to a simple question: is this the guy I want coming down the hallway for me if I get trapped in a burning building?

Being a Christian, is a lot like being a fireman, says Galli.

This is part of what it means to become holy, to be refined by fire. Difficulties and sufferings are God's form of hazing. Sometimes it gets so bad, we think him cruel. But he's only looking for men and women who will keep their cool when things go horribly wrong, a people prepared to dash into burning rooms to rescue those about to be engulfed in flames.

Galli's not talking about metaphysical "the flames of hell" here--he's talking about the real live infernos that people find themselves in.


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