Compassion and Suffering

Willow Tree

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.

Henri Nouwen

It is easy to live in America and catch on to the idea that life is about prosperity, health and happiness. But the more I follow Jesus, the more I become aware of how antithetical this mindset is to the gospel.

Because the more I follow him, the more I realize that he rarely leads me away from the dark, broken places. Almost always, he leads me straight to them. I do not get to escape pain by following him.

This past Mother’s Day brought a negative pregnancy test. Another failed cycle. Another morning that I couldn’t bring myself to go to church, because my uterus wouldn’t comply with the prevailing traditions around me. My broken body will not allow me to be a mother, and so I sit alone while others are honored for their health and wholeness. It feels so very unfair.

And so, I skipped church and sat outside under our willow tree. The dogs sat happily by me, and we listened to the birds sing and enjoyed the bright sky and green life around us.

I read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, a book that my mom had given me the week before. And as I read, this book healed me. Because it told of suffering, immense, awful suffering. And yet, I have never read a book that was filled with more joy, more gospel. I was reminded of who Jesus is and what love is on every single page. And I was reminded that following the way of love rarely means escape from suffering. Love always leads us to the very center of suffering, because this Love is the embodiment of compassion. 

As I spend more time thinking about the gospel and Jesus and what it means for the church today, I am more aware of how essential suffering is for our spiritual well-being. It is impossible to be a compassionate person without having suffered yourself. And so following Jesus will always lead us to places of despair, so that we can comfort others with the comfort we have received in our despair. This cycle occurs over and over again in my life, and I’m beginning to realize that it will never end.

Later in the week, I found out that a friend, who is also in the midst of infertility, got a negative pregnancy test on Mother’s Day as well. She, too, could not bring herself to go to church. And she, too, spent most of the day outside, allowing the beautiful day to heal her heart. It was helpful to know that we were in solidarity on that day, even though we didn’t know it until later. And I know Love led us there together, to the fertile ground of suffering in which compassion is bred.

Much of the last ten years has been a process of unwinding my theology, evaluating my harmful pictures of God. And one of the most poisonous pieces was that God causes suffering, that he is the originator of evil. I have fought this over and over again, and I am finally in a place where I do not believe this. He does not cause pain. There is more than enough pain in this world for him to need to make more.

And yet, he always leads us to the existing pain. And he often does not heal us from the brokenness that rages in our bodies, because he knows it is better for us to experience it.

It is a requirement of following Jesus, walking this path of death and resurrection. We will die over and over and over again. And this death is an essential aspect of the christian life.

But so is resurrection. And in the most barren places, life springs up, joy forms in ways that would not be possible had the suffering not happened.

 

Why the rocks cry out

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I posted again on Making-Space, this time on God’s words to Abraham, that all the people of the earth would be blessed through him.

In this post, I briefly mention my hangup with the term predestination, how it bothered me for years. It felt funny to write that, because it is such an understatement. I re-read the paragraph and thought of all the times the word had “bothered” me. There was the time I threw the book on the five points of Calvinism across the room. The times I didn’t sleep at all, because I couldn’t wrap my mind around how God could be like that. The times I felt paralyzed by the fact that every thing is this world was ordained, and that no matter what I did, things would work out as they were predestined to. The times I reread Romans 9 over and over and over again and tried to make sense of it. The times I listened to songs about God’s glory and thought “I hate his glory. Who finds glory in sending people to hell just because?”

Or the time I read Clark Pinnock’s book, Most Moved Mover, and felt like someone had given me a cold glass of water in the midst of a vast, unending desert. I drank and I drank and I drank, and I thought “maybe God is good after all.”

I can now look at certain definitions of predestination and think, “of course God is not like that.” But back then, I was terrified of being wrong. What if he was like that? Could I still follow him? I knew I couldn’t, and that was the hardest part.

This past year has included a lot of re-evaluating my pictures of God. During my counseling session on Monday evening, I was asked if I felt like God was punishing me through our infertility. I thought about it just to make sure, but I could honestly respond that I don’t. I talked about how sure I was that he is not behind all the bad things that have happened, how I know that he weeps with me, how I know he is for me and by my side.

For so many years, I felt trapped by beliefs that didn’t make sense. I still believe plenty of things that don’t make sense logically (resurrection will never be logical), but they all make sense in my heart. They all make me feel free to run in this kingdom full of grace and compassion and unending love.

I am enjoying the Gospel these days, because it now looks Good News. I finally get why the rocks would cry out about this God.

Trembling and bewildered, they fled…

 

Photo Credit: Lawrence OP via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lawrence OP via Compfight cc

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Mark 16:6-8

For the past few years, this has been my favorite Easter text. I love the unsettling way that the book of Mark ends. Most bibles include alternate endings, because from the beginning, people were unsettled by it. Why end a gospel with a group of people filled with trembling, bewilderment and fear? We need to end this with Jesus, right? With signs and wonders and rejoicing?

The other three gospels help to satisfy us in this (though they also beautifully record the initial reactions to the empty tomb), but I love that Mark leaves us hanging. I love that the last verse tells us of women who were being really horrible evangelists. They had just encountered angels, just been told that Jesus had risen, and yet they flee with fear, saying nothing to anyone.

And if we are unsettled by the reactions of the women, lets be reminded that these were the “good ones”. These were the women who had followed Jesus through his trial and crucifixion, who had arrived at the scene that morning with burial spices, ready to anoint his body. The disciples, the ones who had fled early on, were somewhere else, in hiding, in mourning, entrenched in anger over the Messiah who had let them down. Peter had not just fled, he had told everyone who asked him about Jesus that he didn’t know him, hadn’t followed him, hadn’t had anything to do with him.

Many people will enter church with rejoicing, filled with great joy over the Jesus who has risen and transformed their life. But others will enter church with trembling and bewilderment, saying nothing to anyone, because they are afraid. Some will enter church with anger, because this God has let them down. They know they should be there, because this is what you do on Easter. But they can’t respond to this Easter message with the hope that others do. And they can’t shake the doubts in their mind, the questions that rise up saying “what does this mean, and how could THIS story be real?”

And the beautiful thing about Easter is that there is room for us all to gather around this empty tomb, room for us all to respond with our own mix of emotions. It is okay to be you. It is okay to be afraid, it is okay to feel doubts arising in your heart, okay to question the sermon and feel confused over the gospel message.

And there is room for us all to be surprised this Easter. Surprised by a new creation springing up all around, inaugurated by the one who went ahead of this bewildered group of people, waiting for them with great patience and love. This Easter is about encountering that Jesus, the one who loves those trembling women as much as he loves the unfaithful Peter.

So come. Come just as you are, and meet this humble, loving, risen King. Lets look with wonderment at this empty tomb, then move on to Galilee where he awaits us.