Thursday, March 17, 2016

Suffering: An Easter Homily on Cycling

I can't help noticing the ways in which my renewed interest in cycling is informed by my decades of study in early Christianity. My worlds collided about a year ago when I heard references to a cycle race. My study of ancient rhetoric included a Greek term for hortatory language called paraenesis. I kept thinking of that word when I heard references on podcasts to the classic race held in early March. It took me a few days to realize that they were using the French pronunciation to talk about the race that goes from the city of Paris to the city of Nice in France, Paris-Nice.
A theme that cycling and the Christian religion have in common is suffering. Not only do cyclists refer to the room in which they set up their bike on a trainer as the "pain cave," but a company producing training videos for cycling calls themselves The Sufferfest and uses the metaphor of being from the country of Sufferlandria. What cycling and Christianity have in common is the possibility of the misconception about the role of suffering.
As Easter approaches many people think of the joy of spring and the new life in evidence all around us: baby animals such as chicks and lambs, early sprouting perennials like the Easter Lily. Some of these same people also think about the dark days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday leading up to Easter.These are dark days of suffering and pain. This has led most Christians to think that it was the suffering itself that was redemptive as a payment for sin, a bloody act that exchanged one's life for the lives of many. For others it seems like an abhorrent teaching and a violent act that could not be the divine plan of a loving God.
In my view this understanding of New Testament teaching misunderstands the context of the language about death within the Hellenistic world of early Christianity. The focus should not be on the depth of the suffering and pain but the endurance and commitment of the person experiencing hardship. I like to illustrate the context with the text that best exhibits the Hellenistic influence on early Jewish and Christian texts of the Second Temple period, the document known as Fourth Maccabees. Put simply, the tyrant Antiochus attempts to force Jews to give up their allegiance to their tradition and teachings and perform sacrilegious acts in the temple. A mother and her seven sons one by one undergo suffering and torment but remain faithful.The aged priest Eleazar does the same. The author praises them with athletic imagery:
"Truly the contest in which they were engaged was divine, for on that day virtue gave the awards and tested them for their endurance. The prize was immortality in endless life. Eleazar was the first contestant, the mother of the seven sons entered the competition, and the brothers contended. The tyrant was the antagonist, and the world and the human race were the spectators. Reverence for God was victor and gave the crown to its own athletes. Who did not admire the athletes of the divine legislation? Who were not amazed? The tyrant himself and all his council marveled at their endurance, because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live the life of eternal blessedness" (4 Macc 17:11-18 NRS).
This Hellenistic concept of the death of the innocent hero being beneficial, salvific, redemptive for others is carried through in New Testament texts. The book of Hebrews, which I argue displays some influence from the Maccabean literature, uses similar language to describe the death of Jesus.
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:1-2 NRS).
Paul's letter to the Philippians encourages the recipients to act consistently and faithfully in the same self-sacrificial way to their friends as Jesus did for others. Fourth Maccabees reads, "They vindicated their nation, looking to God and enduring torture even to death" (4 Macc 17:10). Paul uses the same Greek phrase: "And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross" (Phi 2:7-8 NRS). Again, with athletic imagery, the encouragement is to endure the suffering for the greater good it brings about.
"I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phi 3:10-14 NRS).
I don't suggest cyclists stop talking about the "holy water" -- another metaphor from The Sufferfest -- produced by suffering on the bike. I just want us to be clear that we are not advocating pain for the sake of pain itself. Just experiencing the pain is not the goal. We shouldn't glamorize suffering for its own sake. We know that what we're doing is training our bodies to tolerate the pain of lactic acid in our muscles and to improve the body's ability to perform. We call them "endurance athletes" not masochistic athletes. Maybe some do. The real focus is on our ability to endure the stress and pain of the ride and remain committed to the efficacy of our experience. The Sufferfest group does refer to this with their acronym IWBMATTKYT, "I will beat my ass today to kick yours tomorrow." We seek to improve and make progress toward a goal of being as fit and strong as a human can be. There's something divine about that.
One cyclist whose story has intrigued me is Evelyn Stevens, currently a cyclist with the powerful women's cycling team Boels-Dolmans. A few weeks ago my wife and I watched live-streaming video as Evie attempted to break the world hour record. Stevens described the effort as an "athletic meditation on suffering" ("Final Countdown for Evelyn Stevens Hour Record Attempt," Zipp News, Feb. 26, 2016). Her coach used vaguely biblical language, "She started with a full cup of energy, and she was pouring the last drops out in the last laps" (Caley Fretz, "Stevens sets new hour record mark," Velonews, Feb. 27, 2016). I hate to admit that halfway through I fell asleep in my recliner. When I awoke to Evie in her last moments of anguish, I couldn't help but be reminded of Jesus' words to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus became committed to undergo the impending torture, to drink the cup of suffering, "Could you not watch one hour" (Mark 14:37)?
Without the positive results that are brought about because of enduring being pushed to our limits, suffering would just be masochistic. The degree to which we value those outcomes determines the extent to which we can treat suffering as something worth enduring. For some people the objective is to be faster and stronger than anyone else. The result may be to go farther than we could before. Our competition may just be with our own bodies: We want to overcome the limits of what our mind and our muscles set for us and experience the joy of breaking barriers. It may actually be redemptive. Some people undertake extreme events like the Leadville 100 to honor a friend who died of cancer. Some ride or race in events to raise money to fight diseases like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's Disease, or Multiple Sclerosis. Or to provide durable bikes in African countries so that people can get to jobs, school, or stores more easily and with less time (World Bicycle Relief). Whether we do it for our own development or for the good of others and society as a whole, the only way to overcome our natural limitations is to increase our ability to endure our own suffering. It makes not only that special event a day of celebration but the dark days of suffering to be a form of joy as well.

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