Monday, February 29, 2016

Redeeming Suffering

It is difficult for most of us to know how the events of last Wednesday have affected the people of Waverly and one particular family who lives there.  By all accounts, Larry Turner was a good man and a stalwart member of the community.  He loved to cook, one neighbor said of him.  His congressman knew him well and described him as being an engaged and concerned citizen.  On that particular day his girlfriend’s son and daughter and the daughter’s two-year-old son were with Turner in his home – a trailer home – when a tornado ripped through the area.  Turner, the son, and the child were killed – their bodies recovered 300 yards away from their home.  The daughter was seriously injured and, the last I saw, continues to fight for her life.

It is a painful, yet all too familiar story.  We live in a world where various degrees of suffering, pain, and tragedy are all too common.   It is one of the most vexing problems of our existence and is constantly on the mind of most thinking people.  Harold Kushner, who wrote the best-selling book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, observes, “Virtually every meaningful conversation I have ever had with people on the subject of God and religion has either started with this question or has gotten around to it before long.”

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is in conversation with a group of people gathered around him.  At one point a person questions our Lord about a specific instance of one person’s inhumanity against another.  Jesus is asked about a group of Galileans Pilate ordered slaughtered while they were worshipping in the Temple.  Jesus’ response bores to the heart of the prevailing thinking of the time: Did the Galileans suffer this fate because they were sinners?

He then brings up another sad situation – this one, like the tornado – a tragedy of no one’s making.  A tower in the town of Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed.  Were these people worse sinners than those who escaped injury?  To both questions, the answer Jesus gives is no. 

This sends shock waves through the theological world of Jesus’ day.  It was commonly believed the righteous are blessed and the wicked are punished.  When a righteous person suffers – like say, the family in Waverly – it must mean the person is harboring some kind of unconfessed sin.

As absurd as this may sound, my experience in pastoral ministry is that in times of tragedy people still think this way today.  I remember talking to a person in Iowa who believed the 1993 flood was God’s way of telling farmers to stop using fertilizers that polluted the waterways.  Then there was the young mother who believed she deserved the beatings her husband inflicted because she was not a good homemaker.  And what about the man who felt his business went bankrupt because he hadn’t followed biblical principles for investing?  Jesus says no, suffering is not a form of punishment for sin.  God is not vindictive.  There is no need for people to create guilt where no basis for it exists.  

But it is what Jesus does not say that leaves us wanting.  He offers no alternative explanation.  He provides no new theological rationale for pain.  When an airplane crashes we need to know why.  When a young person collapses and dies, we need to know the cause.  When a long-time relationship ends in pain, we need to know where the fault lies.  So the silence of our Lord, in the face of our need to understand, does not sit well.

But, more and more, I find our Lord’s silence consistent with what I am coming to believe.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  I don’t know.  I don’t think anyone knows.  Simply put, there is no answer to the problem of pain.

And any person who tries to explain it to you is categorically wrong in what he or she is saying.  Most often it is either an attempt to defend God or to quiet their own anxieties.  All the reasons they offer boil down either to ‘its not God’s fault’ or ‘this is why it happened to you and not to me’.  I am now at a place in life where I don’t feel the need to defend God and I am as accepting as I can be that someday I too will suffer again.  On that day the question will not be why is this happening to me  – an innocent  – but what can I do and where will I turn to find the strength and courage I need to get through this?

Jesus does not tell us why we suffer but he does do something even more important.  He shows us what to do with our suffering.  As we walk with our Lord through the forty days of Lent, we walk with him in the midst of his agony.  We are with him as he is misunderstood and rejected.  We are with him as he is denied and betrayed.  We are with him as he sets his face toward Jerusalem and his eventual death.

What we learn as we walk with him is not the reason for misfortune, but that suffering is redeemable.  We learn, as one saint put it, our Lord has ‘sanctified pain’ – that he has found a way to make suffering the doorway to holiness.  We learn from our Lord that the Good Fridays of our lives do not have to be the final word.  We learn there is the possibility of an Easter resurrection for every pain.  And although we would never wish disaster for our friends, nor ask for it for our own instruction, we find there are lessons to be learned in the darkest moments we cannot learn in the brightness of a sunny day.  We learn some heights are only scalable from great depths.

When I am in the deep valley, of course I question how I got there.  I wonder what choices and what circumstances and what mistakes led to my situation.  Then I wonder how I will get out.  Where will I find the courage to fight through the chains and the shackles?  Where will I find the strength to go on?  It is only when I remember my help comes in the Name of the Lord that I can begin to leave the valley and return to the light of day. 

But the deeper the valley the more true it seems to be you never really leave it as much as are transformed by it.  The celebrated poet Wendell Berry understands this truth and captures it in a poem titled The Sycamore: 

In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in
that has not harmed it.  There is a hollow in it
that is its death, though its living brims whitely
at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.
Over all its scars has come the seamless white
of the bark.  It bears the gnarls of its history
healed over.  It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.
It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.
In all the country there is no other like it.
I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.

“It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.”  The more I read Berry’s poem the more wisdom and comfort I find in it.  He points to the Christian hope that suffering is redeemable; to our belief that pain, misery, and even death itself never gets the last word.

I have found this to be true in my own life; that the pains I have suffered are redeemable; in fact I would not be the person I am today without the hurts I have known.  I did not get what I wanted from these experiences, but through the grace of God I have been given everything I need and more.  Although I would never voluntarily choose these pains, I am a better person for God’s having walked with me through them.
I hope and pray for Larry Turner’s family and friends, as well as for others who where lost, injured, or affected.  I pray someday they will know their suffering has been sanctified and redeemed.  I hope and trust and pray they will be able