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Today we welcome guest blogger Daniel Meeter, the pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York. Thanks, Daniel!
My personal motto is Philippians 3:10, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by conforming to his death.”
As to the sharing of sufferings, let me tell you a story from my family history in the Dutch Reformed ghetto in Paterson, New Jersey.
My Grandpa on my mother’s side was a carpenter, an immigrant from Amsterdam. He loved languages and books and music. But he made a mess of his life. He committed adultery against my Grandma soon after their marriage and for the next forty years. Just before I was born he left my Grandma and moved in with his girlfriend. He was suspended from Holy Communion, and shunned by all the relatives. I don’t blame them.
My Grandma, at the age of 62, left everything—her house and children and her whole extended family—and moved to Massachusetts to take a job as a housemaid in a mansion. She was happy there. She was free. No humiliation. No shame. My Grandpa and his girlfriend found living together not as nice as they had hoped, and they split up pretty quick. He ended up all alone. He had lost everything. His life was what the book of Philippians calls rubbish.
My parents were open-hearted, and let him come visit us in Brooklyn. When I was seven years old, he moved in with us, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He started driving for my dad. He did carpentry for my dad’s church. And he connected with me. I loved him in the house. We spent time together. It was for him I started learning Dutch. Eventually he moved out, and I saw him less, but over the years he told me the stories of his life. I was the only one of his nine grandsons to learn his language and his music. I learned to sing Dutch psalms with him. When he died I loved him very much.
I loved what was good about him, but I also loved his failures and mistakes. Not that I approve of them, but they were part of him. And if not for his sins he would not have moved in with us and we would not have connected and I would have missed that whole rich part of my own life. His sins and his sufferings are part of what I am today—the music that moves me, the languages I speak, and even my love of Brooklyn. I loved the whole of him, embracing his sins and miseries no less than his successes.
I loved my Grandma even more than him. What’s also part of me is his mistreatment of her, his humiliating her, and what that did to my mother, growing up in a house full of anger. I bear all that. I carry it. I suffer it. I share the suffering my Grandpa brought upon himself and upon other people I have loved.
I want to know Christ and the sharing of his sufferings. Not the suffering itself, but the sharing of suffering. It means understanding, yes. But more deeply it means undergoing, undergirding, undertaking.
I believe that in a real live guy named Jesus, God actually entered and engaged and identified with humanity in real time in a real place as a real person. And I want to know this. I want to have a share in the suffering side of it and know the positive power of it. I want to know Christ because I want to know about this real connection God made with us by having a real mother named Mary and a real ethnicity named Jewish.
I want to know about God’s experience of us. I want to know what we feel like to God. I want to know what suffering feels like to God. And I can know that in Christ. I want to know what suffering feels like to a man who, unlike my Grandpa, was innocent and righteous. What is suffering like to a guy like Jesus, who caused no suffering to anyone else, who asked no sympathy, and who never complained?
This would be all romanticism if not for the first part of the verse: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. I saw that power in my parents. They gave my Grandpa sanctuary when everyone else had shunned him. They honored my Grandpa even when he was dishonorable.
No less did they honor my Grandma. We always loved it when she came from Massachusetts to stay with us. She was so full of stories and she taught us songs and rhymes in Dutch, and she was a wonderful cook and a wonderful seamstress and she always brought us homemade presents.
She didn’t believe in divorce but she wanted nothing to do with my Grandpa. I guess her visits must have stopped when he came to live with us, until he moved out again. And then, encouraged by my parents, he asked her out for a date. She didn’t like it but she said okay.
Well, they got back together for ten final years of marriage. They still argued, but not like before. When Grandpa had his stroke and was in the hospital, Grandma rode the bus downtown three times a day to give him homemade food, and then she took him home to care for him herself.