The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel & The Reverend Seth Ethan Carey
March 27, 2011, 3rd Sunday in Lent
First Congregational Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, UCC
Scripture: Romans 5:1-5
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Seth Ethan Carey:
In the darkness, I hear him breathe. My other senses have grown stale, numbed by the thick dark of the sleepy hours before dawn, but I can hear him breathe. I listen as the air in his lungs escapes his lips in slow, hollow gasps, rattling like an infant’s toy, or a snake. I hear the rasping sound and imagine a lonely zombie waiting patiently in the rain outside my bedroom window, breathing on the glass, moaning low, watching me sleep.
The thought startles me awake, and I realize that I’ve dozed off in the rocking chair with the child still in my arms. The clock reads 3:46 a.m., and an old Godzilla movie flickers on the television screen, the volume turned all the way down. The giant, radioactive lizard stomps upon the burning wreckage of Tokyo, howling silently. My son provides the soundtrack with a sharp, guttural cry that would have done Godzilla proud.
What can I say? My boy’s got good taste in movies. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember turning the TV on.
I marvel at how someone as ridiculously cute as this baby, swaddled in his cuddly blanket like a tiny burrito, could produce a noise so dreadful as to inspire nightmares. Little Ethan stirs and settles back onto my chest, hopefully returning to dreams more pleasant than mine. But whatever it is he dreams of, his slumber is restless. Ethan makes lots of faces when he sleeps; some of them are funny, like the one that makes him look like a constipated turtle. Others are anguished. His arms and legs rarely stop moving for long, and he seems to be tormented by a racing mind, or perhaps something he ate.
St. Paul writes that, “suffering produces endurance,” and I can now testify to this personally. Having spent many long nights tending to the needs of a restless child who refuses to sleep in his crib, staring at late night infomercials through bleary eyes, my wife and I have suffered from varying degrees of sleep deprivation for weeks. And for my part, I’m finding that I’m actually getting used to it. Before Ethan was born, I needed 7 or 8 hours of sleep to function properly. Now, I’m grateful for 3 or 4. As the old saying goes, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you will indeed make you stronger.’
But I worry for my son. He has also suffered, far more than I have as of late—suffered with the pain of being alive. Caring for an infant, one becomes keenly aware of how difficult it must be to inhabit a human body for the first time. His senses are always under attack, overwhelmed by the frightful site of his mothers tangled hair after many a sleepless night, or the pungent odor of his father’s cheap cologne. He endures the lullabies that I sing him, too, most of them being pirate shanties and depressing Tom Waits songs that aren’t entirely appropriate for children. Deafening reports echo from Ethan’s diaper, and his liquid diet leaves much to be desired. His every movement is clumsy, uncertain, like someone who’s driving a car with a manual transmission for the first time. Ethan wears his body uncomfortably, unnaturally, as though he were never intended to have one at all. He was born knowing how to cry—and how to do it well—though he’s just beginning to learn how to smile. But will he be able to keep smiling when life gets hard? Yeah, someday he will.
Because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.
Two weeks ago, we were remembering Eve and the creation story. Today we ask: Why did God create us with bodies? Why not leave us as spirits, companions to God untroubled by physicality? Why not just let us exist as bodiless creatures, free of colic, and the struggles of growing up, free of earthquakes, physical addictions, hunger and disease?
Paul writes that suffering produces endurance and then that endurance produces character. Could our physical bodies be a place of building moral character and virtue? Could they, in their messiness, be the laboratory where we work out spiritual matters, for better or for worse?
In the movie, The Fighter, the main character is “Irish” Mickey Ward, a poor street kid from Lowell, Massachusetts, who boxed his way from obscurity into a welterweight title in the eighties. But his toughest battles took place outside the ring, with an older drug-addicted brother, a boxer past his prime, but still coasting on the one great moment when he knocked out the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard.
A boxing movie’s greatest accomplishment is always to interest people with no interest in boxing… in boxing. The Fighter does that, by making you feel like you are right in the ring, enduring the physical punishment of losing a match to someone with twenty pounds on you, but seeing the skill, the endurance and art of it all. Clearly a sport that requires tremendous physical discipline as well as physical pain, those of us who would never enter a ring, enter into the physical endurance of it with our imaginations.
The two brothers are a study in contrasts when it comes to their bodies, their physical endurance and their character. There are countless scenes where the younger Mickey works out on the punching bag with furious intensity and endurance, determined to improve himself, while his older brother parties with his friends, and abuses his once fit body with drugs and alcohol all day long.
A has-been and petty criminal, Dicky, the older brother, imagines himself training and mentoring his younger brother. He even convinces himself that the documentary camera crew following him around is filming his boxing come-back.
But later, when the show comes on television, Dickie, now in prison, watches it and realizes that it is a show about drug addiction and he is the star, but the star loser. Suddenly, the former athlete sees himself as he really looks physically. After years of drug use, the former boxer is bone thin, out of shape, and missing teeth. And that’s his turnaround.
In the next scenes, Dickie puts himself into a constant regimen of prison yard exercise, running, lifting weights and boxing. It is as if the former athlete knows that in order to have any healing inside, he has to work on the outside too. By the time he leaves prison, he knows he’s not ready for the professional ring, but he has a body that is drug free and works again, and you realize that the athlete might really have a come-back in his future after all, not as a boxer, but as a responsible adult who can follow through for the people he loves.
Because endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
Seth Ethan Carey:
I once heard a story about a young family with two children, one of them being only a few days old. Having brought their infant son home from the hospital, their daughter—only a small child herself—was found standing by his cradle one night after she thought her parents had gone to sleep. She seemed to be talking to to him, and from their vantage point just outside the nursery doorway, her mom and dad heard her say something remarkably profound to her baby brother.
“Tell me what God is like,” she whispered. “I can’t remember anymore.”
As Christians, we believe in a world to come, an afterlife beyond our time on this earth. But rarely do we ever speak of what might have come before this life. Are our souls conceived alongside our bodies, or did they already exist someplace else before being chained to this flesh, to these bones? The old Jewish sages wrote of a chamber they called the Room of Guph, a treasury of young souls that dwell in Heaven, waiting to be born. Perhaps we come into this world with vivid memories of that place, still able to recall the colors of Heaven and the face of God. But as our physical senses overwhelm us, those memories fade like dreams. We sink into a prison of matter, bound by molecules and atoms and the limits of our sensory perception—those things we can taste, smell, hear, see, and touch.
Why, then, do the infant souls that drift in the Guph allow themselves to be born on earth, to be confined to the strict limitations of the human body? Perhaps it’s because the human body doesn’t confine these souls at all—on the contrary, it allows them to grow.
Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. And our character produces great things, for it is more than the sum of our physical parts. I, Seth Ethan Carey, am more than my arms and legs, more than the blood that flows in these veins, more than the stubborn beating of my heart. I am a husband, and a father. I have a weakness for Reece’s peanut butter cups and Japanese science fiction. I have a morbid and unnatural fear of manual labor. None of these characteristics that define me would be possible without my body—all of them are a product of my physical senses.
But what these give rise to other senses, too, beyond the physical ones? Doctors and psychologists use the term Sensorium to describe the totality of human perception; not just the things we can see, hear, and touch, but also our opinions, interpretations, and beliefs about those things. So while our Sensorium is rooted in the physical world, it also extends well beyond it. That means that the human body is a Petri dish of sorts, a crucible wherein the rare conditions for spiritual growth are made possible. We are born with five senses, but with the potential to develop endless sensibilities—things like compassion, love, courage, generosity, and hope. Character produces hope.
And so my tired eyes watched the television screen, watched as Godzilla sank defeated into the waters of Tokyo Bay. And as my ears were filled with the sound of my infant son wailing, my hands holding his small body close to my chest, other senses were at work in my soul.
In particular, I was hopeful—hopeful that if humanity could manage to silence the deafening roar of Godzilla, I could at least manage to get my son to stop crying and go to sleep before dawn.
But how could I afford to be so optimistic? Because character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.
When I was a child I lived in Tokyo, for my father was a foreign correspondent, a journalist covering the Vietnam War. We lived in a Japanese neighborhood, in a traditional Japanese house, which meant that it had tatami on the floor, woven straw mats that take the place of carpeting and in some cases furniture, for I remember our neighbors’ houses where people sat in sparsely furnished rooms with pillows on the straw mats on their floors.
Other memories from the Japanese house include a bathtub that you stood up in, rather than lay down. Picture a bathtub structure, but in the shape of a shower stall, where it would be filled with boiling hot water higher than one’s waist. You bathed before getting into the water, standing outside the tub, since that bathtub water had to stay clean for the whole family to use. It was only filled once a day.
And I also remember the paper walls inside the Japanese house. They were like thick screens that you could slide, in some cases, and they were flimsy. They were not made to last, much like the whole house.
My parents told me that these Japanese houses were built to be temporary. Earthquakes were a part of that, and I remember huddling under the dining room table as the world shook around us. But those earthquakes were small and seldom very scary. We always came out all right with just a few broken items that fell off shelves and hit that table instead of our heads.
Houses were seen much like cars, not expected to last forever, but built with the idea that they would be replaced. Today, my brother-in-law, Sid, and his Japanese wife, Youko, and my three nieces and nephews live in a house very much like this in the suburbs of Tokyo, built to last twenty or thirty years and then be replaced. For houses do not live forever.
In the days after the recent terrible earthquake in Japan, our family was greatly relieved to hear news that our family was doing OK and that their house was still standing. But it had been an ordeal. Youko had been at home with a baby and a toddler, at first upstairs, then downstairs under the dining room table as their belongings fell all around them; and finally it was so severe she decided she’d be safer outside. My niece, Grace, stayed at her school, along with the other students, for several hours, where they were safer there in the playground. Sid had been stuck at the office and was helping another man get to his hotel and did not get home to see his family until 3 a.m. But at least they were all safe. My three-year-old nephew, Louie, is still grabbing his favorite toys and storing them under the dining room table in case it happens again.
The people of Japan have gone through incredible physical devastation. The enormous tidal waves swept away houses and cars as though they were children’s toys and not the real thing. Any confidence we had in our ability to construct things that last was swept away in those images. But it’s not just the houses that were swept away, but people, and not just people, but hope, too. When you go through that kind of suffering, when you are devastated by grief, your hope can get swept away, too.
So, I remember how moved I was by a news story that happened the same day that two thousand bodies swept up on the shoreline in Miyagi. Exhausted rescue workers were shocked at the horror of so much loss of life, but on that very same day, Time magazine reported this incident:
“More accustomed to hearing the crunching of rubble and the sloshing of mud than sounds of life, they dismissed the baby’s cry as a mistake.
Until they heard it again.
They made their way to a pile of debris and carefully removed fragments of wood and slate, shattered glass and rock. And then they saw her: a four-month-old baby girl in a pink woolen bear suit. A tidal wave literally swept the baby from her parents’ arms when it hit their home on March 11.”
“Her discovery has put a new energy into the search,” a civil defense official told a local news crew. “We will listen, look and dig with even more diligence after this.” 
Human hope is an amazing thing. In the face of two thousand dead bodies, it was the discovery of one single baby in a pink bear suit that gave energy to the exhausted, and gave the people hope once again.
Hope is not logical, it makes no sense from a numbers perspective, and it’s not something you can prove. But human beings seem to have been built with a divine microchip inside us, the capacity for hope in the face of suffering. Against the odds, we build our case not on the devastation of thousands but upon the shrieking cry for life of one baby in a pink bear suit.
For it was as a shrieking baby that God came to be born upon the earth as the baby Jesus, to keep us company in these our awkward, fragile human bodies. Jesus cried like a baby, and lived like a man. He suffered in his body but also must have known great joy. He lived, died and then lived again and promised us that while our bodies, these physical houses are not built to last forever, through the power of our creator, we do.
Suffering can devastate us for moment, but in the end it is the crying baby who reminds us that hope is the greater reality.
Lillian: Suffering produces endurance,
Seth: Endurance produces character
Lillian: Character produces hope
Seth: And hope does not disappoint us.