Suffering is such a difficult subject. I preached about it last Sunday...
I want to talk to you this morning about a serious subject – the subject of Suffering. Well, actually, I don’t WANT to talk about it. I’ve struggled with this my whole life, and frankly, I find it absolutely infuriating. But it’s our reality, and I think it’s important, when we worship God, to be real about our experience. And suffering is just part of that; we're born into a world of kindness and beauty and goodness, and suffering. These are the terms of our existence.
Now, not to rank different kinds of suffering—that would be DUMB, but I do need to say that some suffering is easier to get a hold of than others. When we can explain suffering, it gives us something to hold on to, and that can help. "Well, we’re suffering because of that person over there who’s behavior is unacceptable! OR, we’re suffering because we ourselves refuse to change, or leave, or let go. OR we’re suffering at the hands of an institution or a system, or a corporation or a government, or a Church. When we can identify the reason, there’s usually a way to deal with it. But when there’s no identifiable reason for it…as in tornadoes that just randomly drop down out of the very sky! OR … of course, there’s sickness and disease. People get cancer and die. But to get a diagnosis right before your wedding day? or while you’re pregnant? What’s that about?
Come on . . . no no no. Why would a supposedly loving and powerful God allow … I mean, NO. If God really loves us, and God is really powerful, then . . . NO. Perhaps you've worked through this question and are satisfied with your answers, but I have worked and struggled and worked some more, and, for me, there is no good answer to this question of why suffering exists. It just does! …. There ARE some other things about suffering that we can talka about, though--important things, especially today on this Peace Sunday.
Spiritual giants through the ages have addressed the issue of pain and suffering – and many agree that if we stop resisting suffering, it will help. When we can gently let go of our resistance to the pain that’s visiting us, we’re more open to the lessons that suffering wants to teach us. The assumption here is that suffering carries within it some kind of gift.
Personally I sense some truth here, but I also think that this idea comes dangerously close to spiritualizing suffering. It can lead us to discount how vicious suffering can be, glossing over the cruelty and malice involved in some suffering. So I think we have to careful here… After all, we’re called to stand against suffering, aren’t we?…Just like God stands against suffering. God never allows us to suffer in order to teach us a lesson. God hates it that we suffer, and as Compassion itself, God suffers right along with us. And the thing is ….God is always at work creating a new thing, calling us to become all we can be, nudging us to help create the Reign of God on the earth. So suffering is here—it’s not from God, but since it’s here, know that God is always working with us to somehow redeem it. At least offer that possibility.
I do think that one gift suffering nearly always offers is to help us move from surface to deeper ways of knowing. Suffering can free us from the illusions created by our false egos, with their love for self-deception.
Poet and philosopher John O’Donohue says that “even if we had lovely parents and a magic childhood—even then, there aren’t many humans walking around who aren’t covered in the shell of false ego. But suffering cracks that shell and breaks it open, so that the new, hidden life within us can emerge” and we can more easily SEE reality and truth.
Another important thing about suffering...let me quote John O’Donohue again here.
"Part of the beauty of the Christian story is the way it’s so real with suffering.” After all, the Cross is the central symbol of our faith – a truly horrible symbol, an instrument of torture, yet the Cross is so powerful because . . . “there’s a cruciform structure to every pain and sadness we encounter. The cross isn’t just on a hill in Jerusalem. The shape of the cross is internal to the human heart. All our hearts have that shape.
Human beings are nothing if not one big contradiction. We’re relational—connected with others at our core, and at the same time we’re unique individuals who stand alone. We are free, but our freedom is limited--the absolute paradox of limited freedom.
O'Donohue puts it like this: "This cruciform structure that is the human heart is where these contradictions meet. The cross goes from the lowest point of the clay (from where we're grounded in our humanity) to the highest point of divinity" (those times when we actually get a glimpse of the Image of God within us). ... The Christian story tells us that the crucifixion and the resurrection are of a piece. The resurrection is the light hidden at the heart of the cross. It's so sad and so frightening--but only through the Cross is the beauty of real healing and life revealed. Through the pain of the cross we are invited to come home to ourselves [and to the intimacy of what it means to be human, for this is something we all share. Nothing connects us to each other more than the vulnerability we all experience in suffering.
Now, this is heavy duty stuff, taking us to the heart of what it might mean to be a Christian. But perhaps it does not resonate with you. Part of the problem with preaching is that it’s a monologue, when I’d really like to hear how you respond to this. I’m going to be here in this chapel area between/after the service today to listen if you’d like to talk about this, OK?
So, suffering is a given. Being careful not to spiritualize it, it might carry within it some gifts – breaking our false egos open, connecting us to each other in powerful ways. And the Christian story, in particular, takes the crucifying pain of suffering and connects it to the Resurrection—they are of a piece! That’s what Jesus did and that’s what his Spirit continues to do—The possibility that our suffering might, in some mysterious way, be redeemable is Christ’s invitation to Abundant Life.
And we see this possible reality everywhere. Why do we love Nelson Mandela and grieve as we anticipate his death? In part because in the midst of his suffering, he opened himself up to the work of the Spirit that was always nudging him to stand for justice while loving his enemies. And oh, how that created a man of true peace.
Another smaller example—my husband David and I met 10 years ago, on July 5 2003. We celebrated that anniversary on Friday by having lunch together at the same restaurant where we met. David and I are the same age – 10 years ago we were both 47, middle age, a time in which we were both focused on our careers. Now, at 57, we’re still there, but thoughts of retirement are also part of our reality now. And our conversation on Friday touched on a couple of things that have happened to both of us, separately, recently that made me think of the life cycle, where middle age is about productivity, and from there as we age, we move into the “generative” stage—in which we give back. It’s the stage where to the extent that we’ve allowed our sufferings to creatively transform us, to mold us into better people, then our suffering is redeemed because we’re able to give back to our little circles of influence – the people we know. Our children and grandchildren can benefit from our…greater maturity. Or not. :-) But anyway, it’s possible. Small example.
A bigger example is what I heard in Shelley sermon last week. This history of the LGBT movement in a sense IS a history of suffering—oppression carries suffering within it. Shelley’s words were a call to action because this suffering born from oppression is now on the threshold, moving from the weight of pain into the lightness of something new. The NEW THING that God has been creating all along is now becoming more visible. So, let me encourage you to stop by the Hope 4 Peace & Justice table in the narthex this morning and see what you might be able to contribute to this movement of the Spirit in our world. It’s possible that it can provide meaning to some suffering. Turn it into something good.
The anthem this morning said in part that “We see a distant land, it shines so clear. I hear a distant song; it fills the air. I touch a distant land and I feel its glow.” So this distant land, in which suffering is no more -- is another of the contradictions that constitute our lives. Yes it’s distant, AND it’s also right here. Right now. Closer than the air we breathe.
You see, suffering is not the last word. We are MORE than the suffering that is simply part of the terms of our existence. We are not meant to live small lives, giving in to the bad things that happen such that we become small people. – No.
We are all called to lives of meaning and importance, and such beauty. While it’s not easy, we are free to face suffering head-on, using our God-given freedom and our God-given community of people who love us, to create the abundant life that God wants us to have—even in the midst of inexplicable suffering, to know lives of true peace. May it be so. Amen.