Van Ens: Do you desire pain-free living?
If I constructed a religion from scratch, this faith would feature a happy symbol as its focus. Like real estate brochures hyping homes with pain-free conveniences, such as automatic sprinkler systems, covered gutters that banish leaves and multiple electronic gadgets that make life more pleasant. Let the symbol for this religion showcase a romantic silver moon or a burst of sunbeams that make our chilled cheeks feel toasty again.
To legitimize this new variety of Christianity, I would edit the Bible, making it sound splendid. Didn’t the Apostle Paul do a disservice to Christianity by teaching believers in the ancient city of Corinth, “… we preach Christ crucified …” (I Corinthians 1:23)? The cross is too grim as the prime symbol for Christianity, isn’t it? A crucifixion is a painful, ghastly way of dying. Why not stick with “preach Christ” and make believers healthy, wealthy and wise?
The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor wrote of why, when we are honest, most of us desire a pleasant Christianity. “I want a God who will cut my losses and cushion my failures,” writes this Episcopalian cleric, “a God who will grant me a life free of pain. I want a God who will rescue me from death, who will delete it from the human experience and find another way to operate.”
A haven most pleasant is Boulder, Colorado. I live near this small city of around 100,000 friendly residents. Boulder’s Pearl Street features artsy shops for customers who don’t wear designer jeans. Hiking attire will do. A laid-back university town, it attracts many fit California students who like to hike, bike and enjoy God’s majestic outdoors. Most visitors to Boulder enjoy a dopamine burst, that feel-good chemical released in our brains. which gives a pleasant rush. Stress-free.
My primary residence for the past four decades is a mere 20-minute ride by car from Boulder — America’s quintessential Pleasantville. My backyard extends into a nature preserve near a reservoir with the purplish Rockies serving as a backdrop. Travel a few miles further through greenspace to the Boulder Turnpike and head west. Stop at an off-ramp and see from an overview the Rockies’ grandeur. Look down valley at the University of Colorado’s main campus surrounded by a bucolic city cherishing its village aura.
A few miles to the south of campus are the famous Flatirons, distinctive sandstone rock formations that form the Rockies’ eastern flank, with a shopping center nestled below. A King Soopers grocery store serves as a haven from life’s pain. Locals come here to do more than shop. They socialize and meander aisles laden with brightly colored fruits and vegetables.
Remember late 19th century photos in which men with starched collars and women wearing stiff high-collared blouses somberly stared at you. Such fashion dictated homemakers use heavy irons to smooth creases in collars.
Similarly, the Flatirons smooth mental creases pain causes. Our minds get relaxed, and hearts energized by hiking to peaks in some of the sunniest climate on Earth.
Recent headlines in The Denver Post newspaper interjected pain into this perfect picture of living near the foothills. The news juxtaposition caused readers to wince. Huge headlines announce “Loss, anguish, anger,” with pictures of smiling shoppers and employees in the grocery store who a gunman massacred.
Also painful is that the murderer resides in Arvada, a short distance from my residence. Arvada prides itself on having open space, trails, parks and community centers. Like Boulder, it is a great place to raise a family. And raise a killer with mental health challenges, perhaps heightened by the pandemic.
What does the Cross as Christianity’s symbol say after another massacre in Colorado? Pain often leaves wounded life’s pleasanter moments. Christians believe God does not magically lift us out of painful situations. Instead, He enters them, and the agony of the Cross is God’s personal testimony of His empathy for us.
“The symbol of the cross in the Church,” wrote theologian Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God, “points to a God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the “place of the skull,” [meaning of the word “Golgotha”] where the outcast belong, outside the gates of the city.
“It is a symbol which therefore leads out of church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned.”
God sent the crucified Christ to identify with our pain instead of releasing us from it.
How does that help us after the latest massacre of innocent people in Boulder?
Soviet Gulag survivor and Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells how the Cross shaped his life. Starving and worked to death, he was ready to give up and die. Solzhenitsyn stopped working, waiting for sadistic guards to beat him senseless.
Another enslaved prisoner took a shovel and in the sand near Solzhenitsyn’s feet drew the sign of the cross and then immediately erased it, so the guards would not see this Christian symbol. Solzhenitsyn, who focused on that cross for a few seconds, felt lifted by a second spiritual wind of hope and resiliency. He held on despite being squeezed by pain. Amid persistent discomfort, Solzhenitsyn was saved by a prisoner who reminded him of Christianity’s sign of hope — the Cross.
The Cross does not furnish answers to why evil prospers and violence succeeds. Rather, it reminds us in pleasant and dreary days that God does not insulate Christians from painful jolts. Rather, He suffers alongside us, resurrecting our hopes in times of deep despair.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.