From the New Testament reading:
We 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.
I mentioned last Sunday that I really enjoyed my week at the CREDO Conference in NC. It proved to be far more beneficial than I ever would have expected, hoped for, or imagined. I came away with much, but today, let me share this one facet: after just two days I realized that every participant (and there were 36 of us) and every faculty member (there were 8) had experienced some deep pain or wounding in life.
This reality began to emerge at daily worship where a different faculty member offered a reflection each day. On the first morning, a priest related how years ago (and this is a memorable line) his “wife went away to that place where unhappy women go and never return”, leaving him alone to raise their children. That led to a period of deep depression followed by alcoholism, which in term cost him his job, his bishop shunned him, and he ended up homeless for some period of time. Another day another member of the faculty described how one of his children, younger than two, was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer and died six retching weeks later. That too was years ago… I can only begin to imagine the heartache.
Talking with fellow clergy I heard stories of professional pain and personal struggle. The priesthood, I thought, exacts a huge toll on its ranks. But I know that we are not alone. I know from sharing in your lives that it is not just one career path which is singled out for challenge and that no one is immune from the worst that life has to offer. We all have known pain. We all have known suffering. For the most fortunate among us, the experience is largely in the past. For some, it is an on-going reality.
Since the beginning of the War on Terror in 2001, 1,085 members of our Armed Forces have lost their lives in Afghanistan; 139 so far this year. Over that same period, 4,400 American servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq: 30 this year. Whatever Memorial Day will be for many of us, it will be something very different for those who have lost a son or a daughter, a husband or a wife, a brother or a sister, an uncle or an aunt, a neighbor or a friend. For them, this weekend will highlight their loss, their emptiness, their suffering.
According to the version of the bible we heard read this morning, Paul says that we ‘boast’ in our sufferings. Boast is probably not the most useful choice of words. Other translations put it “we rejoice in our sufferings” or “we celebrate in the midst of suffering.” While rejoicing and celebrating focus the sense of what Paul is saying, it still sounds foreign. None of us should want to seek out suffering for suffering’s sake.
Paul’s great contribution here is the belief that suffering is not pointless. If we embrace the pain of life, rather than flee from it, deflect it on to others, or internalize as our own fault, something redemptive can take place. We learn how to endure (or, as another bible translation puts it, ‘persevere’). As we endure we forge a new identity that is rooted in character. From this emerges the hope that all we experience – all that is good, all that is bad, all that is mundane, all of it – when lived authentically and lived in God becomes the kingdom of God at work in and through our lives.
But this transformation is neither automatic nor guaranteed. For some, the experience of suffering is paralyzing, leaving the person lost and frozen in place. I thought about this when I came across a poem by Adelia Prado titled Divine Wrath:
When I was wounded
whether by God, the devil, or myself
- I don’t yet know which –
it was seeing the sparrows again
and clumps of clover, after three days,
that told me I hadn’t died.
When I was young,
all it took were those sparrows,
those lush little leaves,
for me to sing praises,
dedicate operas to the Lord.
But a dog who’s been beaten
is slow to go back to barking
and making a fuss over his owner
- an animal, not a person
like me who can ask:
Why did you beat me?
Which is why, despite the sparrows and the clover,
a subtle shadow still hangs over my spirit.
May whoever hurt me, forgive me.
If I am correct in assuming that every person knows some great suffering or loss or pain in life, I wonder for how many does Prado’s poem ring true. For how many has suffering led not to hope but to numbness or despair? Perhaps that is where it has taken you, but I imagine that those of us who are here in this house of worship have found at least some small way to boast or rejoice or celebrate. We know, at least in part, the experience of God’s love being poured into our hearts at the time and in the place that we needed it most. If you have received such grace than you are truly blessed, because, as Prado reminds us, it is not a given. I wonder how many people who ‘don’t dark the door of the church’ used to sing childhood operas to God at the sight of a sparrow and the smell of the clover, but now, like a dog beaten by its owner, don’t know what to say to God so they just say nothing.
During a reflection at the CREDO Conference, one speaker took a small clay pot and threw it to the floor, causing it to break into multiple pieces. “That was me,” she told us. “That was my life when our son came home from Iraq and then disappeared without a word.” Once or twice he called, agreeing to meet his parents in Chicago or Seattle, but then never showed. Finally, after several years she was reunited with her son. To dramatize the experience, the speaker took a second clay pot, one that had been broken but now was glued back together, and set it on a table. A candle was burning inside the pot and because not all of the broken pieces fit neatly together light was shinning through the cracks. “I am like this pot,” she told us. “My life was broken, but it has been put back together and God’s love shines through the suffering I have experienced.”
I pondered that image for some time in the silence of our worship and began to sense how I have been “broken into me.” It is a theme of have touched on before (like when I say the most important degree I have been awarded in life comes from the School of Hard Knocks). Who I am is part and parcel with what I have suffered. I could not and would not be who I am today without the pain I have known. Did God visit it on me? I don’t think so. Did the devil? No, I don’t think that either. Did I do it to myself? Sometimes. But for the most part most of it is just life. I focus not on the curse of the bad things, but on the blessing of how it has been redeemed by God.
Ponder the suffering in your own life. The good news of Gospel is not that God shields the faithful from bad things; for if this were true it would mean that none of us who have suffered is faithful. No, the good news is that out of the brokenness – somehow and over time – something emerges in us that becomes a welcome and indispensible part of who we are. It is made possible only as God’s love is poured into us. It is of this that we boast and we rejoice and we celebrate.