(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux Baptist Church)
(July 17, 2011 – Romans 8:12-25)
There are three sayings I should have listened to before buying a boat. The first is that a boat is a hole in the water in which you throw money.
The second is that there are two happy days in a boat owner’s life – the first when he or she buys his/her boat and the second is when he or she sells it.
But perhaps most the most important saying I should have listened to is that the definition of sailing is doing repairs in exotic locations. Not, I hasten to add that that Chester Basin is a terribly exotic location but the doing repairs part sure fits. And to add insult to injury everything you do on a boat is four times harder and takes ten times longer than you think it should.
I thought of this saying the other day as I had one arm buried up to my shoulder in a small circular opening in the back of the boat trying to hold on to a nut while with my other hand I was trying to turn the screw to tighten the bolt. I was on a conference call while doing this and the moderator was asking for people to give their opinions starting from west to east so I thought I was safe for a few minutes when suddenly he changed and asked for my viewpoint.
The phone was on mute so they could not hear me doing my repairs. I thought of trying to take it off mute with my tongue but gave up that thought rather quickly and ended up pulling my left arm out of the hole in a painful extraction while dropping a the bolts into the water with the other hand — bolts which I needed in order to complete the job. Frustrating but unfortunately, watching tools and fasteners you need to finish the job sink quickly to the bottom of the oceans is, at least in my experience, all too common.
In fact it has all been very frustrating working on a boat. While trying to fix one problem I have often ended up creating many others. And yet, the other day, as I was cursing the day I starting buying the boat, I realized that in some senses the frustration of working on a boat is not unique, that life too can be very frustrating business, even if you are not unlucky enough to own a boat.
Yes, indeed, I reflected, life is often very frustrating and, unfortunately, it seems to be growing more so all the time. There is in Canada today a growing sense of futility and frustration both on a personal and on a national level. In one way or another we all feel frustrated and examples are far too easy to come by.
What causes our frustrations? How can we cope with them? Are they inevitable? Are they potentially constructive or are they always life-denying? Good questions these.
Of course, as Christians, when we contemplate the sense of futility and frustration that often surrounds us we must always ask what does the Bible say about our concern? And an obvious starting point is the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes chapter one, verse fourteen, the preacher writes, “I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun. They are all emptiness and chasing the wind.”
Typical of the author of Ecclesiastes, who was a marvellous man with a marvellous mind, honest and courageous, but profoundly cynical and pessimistic. Life is a vain, futile business according to him. You try to be good, clever, rich, happy but it gets you nowhere, you just go round in circles like a dog chasing his tail. In the end nothing seems to matter; whether you’re good or bad, clever or foolish, happy or sad, rich or poor, death takes us all and our striving means nothing at all.
All very frustrating, and yet also very close to reality. There is the frustration of the married woman who has given up a promising career matched by the frustration of the career woman who never got married. There is the frustration of the banker who wants to be a store keeper matched by the frustration of the storekeeper who wants to be a banker. There is the frustration of the city pastor who longs for a country setting matched by the frustration of the rural pastor who wants to work in the city.
And what is true on an individual level also applies to the national and to the international level as well. There is the frustration of trying to formulate policies which meet the needs and the approval of all Canadians. There is the frustration that Ontario has with the West. And the frustration the West has with Quebec. And the frustration which we Maritimers have with the whole lot of them.
Internationally, there is the frustration that the Arabs have with the Jews overshadowed now by the frustration that the Arab rebels have with their Arab leaders. It seems that you just can’t win! Wherever you turn Ecclesiastes’ observation that all is emptiness and a chasing after the wind seems to hold true.
The author of Ecclesiastes has stated then the contemporary problem of frustration with classic precision and compelling power. But if the author has any answer it is veiled and it is hidden as those of you who have read this biblical book know. It is a suggestion really rather than a full blown response.
For a better answer we need to turn to the New Testament and, in particular, to a verse in Romans chapter eight where Paul writes these words, “the created universe was made a victim of frustration not by its own choice by because of God who made it so.”
Surprising words aren’t they; this comment by Paul, this assertion that God is behind the frustrations of life, that God is the source of our frustrations that God is frustrating us in various ways. Frustrating our sin and our selfishness. Frustrating those desires within us which threaten our own destruction. Frustrating us in our economics and our politics.
But I have come to see that they are true. God is the source of much of the frustrations of life but the reason why is not because God is mean or cruel or capricious. The reason why, when you read Paul’s words in their larger context, is because God is not content to leave us in our sinful state but is trying to move us as individuals and as a society towards redemption and towards wholeness.
Let me try to explain.
Psychologists talk of frustration in connection with sublimation. Because we are frustrated with something we redirect our destructive instincts into something much more creative. Sublimate means literally “made divine.” In other words, frustration can be the stuff out of which the sublime is fashioned.
Of course, life is frustrating, but in some senses God made it so. For God’s purpose is to take these fallen human natures of ours and having frustrated our sin, to remould us into people more like Christ; to redirect our energies and desires; to take the bad and the painful and by grace to make of it something sublime.
Christ himself is the great example of this. Christ’s life is an example of frustration. The frustration of ministering to people who didn’t understand and who refused to understand. The frustration of love being met by hatred, acceptance by rejection. And the cross is the climax of that frustration and its supreme symbol.
Many, perhaps most saw in the cross of Calvary only frustration and futility. The apostle Peter was one such person. After seeing Christ die on the cross, he decided that everything Christ had taught and lived for, everything Peter had hoped for when he followed Christ had been vain, futile, empty, sheer frustration. And so Peter went back to his life as a Galilean fisherman. And he missed the point.
In W. H. Auden’s eulogy to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats there is a marvellous line. Aware of the great pain and suffering which the Irish endured during Yeat’s lifetime, Auden writes these haunting words, “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”
On the cross, the collective burden of our human sin hurt God in Christ into the great poetry of salvation. On the cross God sublimated his frustration and made it divine. In time, of course, Peter who had once seen the cross as frustrating God’s will came to see this truth. In his letter, he writes these words, “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”
You know the truth of what I am talking about. Because of Christ Jesus, the supreme victim of frustration, we, who are frustrated by life, often find our destructive impulses, the bad which happens to us, sublimated and turned into the divine. I think of the painter Joni who was crippled as a result of an accident and totally frustrated. And yet through her frustration God gave her the energy to become an accomplished artist, a vibrant witness for Christ.
I think of the history of our Canadian Baptist missionary work in Bolivia. And particularly of the death of Norman Dabbs. Just when the mission work seemed to be going somewhere, Norman Dabbs and several Bolivian leaders where martyred — painful frustration. And yet if you speak to many Bolivian Baptists even today, and ask them why they gave their lives to Christ, they will point to the death of Norman Dabbs.
Charles Colson went to prison for his part in the Watergate affair. Through the writings of C. S. Lewis he found Christ and now he has a world-wide ministry to prisoners. Malcolm Muggeridge, who was for many years one of the greatest critics of the Christian faith, rediscovered Christ and became a Christian apologist. St. Augustine lived a life of pleasure and indulgence. He licked the earth as he put it and lamented “late have I loved Thee.” But the love that started late became a very great love indeed, to the benefit of all Christians.
Don’t miss the point. It is not simply that God makes us useful in spite of our missed opportunities but that he often reaches us through our missed opportunities. It is not just the good part in us (whatever that means) that God uses, but the “late have I loved Thee” part, the Watergate part, the skeptical part, the frustrated and the frustrating part.
And so may I be bold enough to ask you this morning. What do you do with the frustrations which you encounter in life? Do you let them destroy you? Do you let them embitter you? Do you let them deprive you of hope? Do you let them steal your faith? Do you let them frustrate you in endless torment?
Or, do you let God’s Spirit stir you and touch you and move you through the frustration to the sublime? Do you let God move you through the hurt to the great healing poetry of faith, and of hope, and of love?