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.

 

Maundy Thursday: In the Garden

On this Maundy Thursday, I am reposting from earlier this year, after we found out we had lost our baby.

On this day, may we remember that we are invited into the garden with Jesus. Here, in this dark and lonely place, he welcomes us into his own grief and willingly shares in ours.


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Photo Credit: Lawrence OP via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lawrence OP via Compfight cc

We live in a finite world where everything is dying, shedding its strength. This is hard to accept, and all our lives we look for exceptions to it. We look for something strong, undying, infinite. Religions tells us that something is God. Great, we say, we’ll attach ourselves to this strong God. Then this God comes along and says, “Even I suffer. Even I participate in the finiteness of this world.” Thus Clare and Francis’ image of God was not an “alimighty” and strong God, but in fact a poor vulnerable, and humble one like Jesus. This is at the heart at the Biblical and Franciscan worldview.

The enfleshment and suffering of Jesus is saying that God is not apart from the trials of humanity. God is not aloof. God is not a mere spectator. God is not merely tolerating or even healing all human suffering. Rather, God is participating with us–in all of it–the good and the bad! I wonder if people can avoid becoming sad and cynical about the tragedies of history if they do not know this.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Job and the Mystery of Suffering

The above quote was one of the most meaningful texts I read last year. It is radical, this idea that God enters into our suffering. Our picture of God is often one in which he is unaffected by us, removed from our grief. But this is not the God revealed in Jesus.

That God has suffered and suffers still has been incredibly meaningful for me these past few days. I can not seem to sleep in while pregnant (which I still am, for an indeterminate amount of time), and Friday and Saturday mornings found me awake and entrenched in pain beyond anything I had felt before. It was agony, the kind of grief that makes you want to just quietly give up and die, rather than living another moment in that pain.

During these hours, the most helpful activity was imagining Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. There he knelt, this man of sorrows, sweating blood and tears and begging for things to be different. His closest friends lay a stones throw away, but they were sleeping, unaware of the agony so near to them. As I lay in bed, I imagined myself crawling up to Jesus in that garden, looking at him in his grievous state, and telling him that my baby had died. I knew that this pain was not beyond him, that it was not too great or too insignificant for him. And I knew that he grieved with me.

This is the kind of God that we have, and it fills me with peace. He is not an impassible, unmovable God. It is easy to feel like I should ignore or push away my grief during times like this, but I’m glad that I don’t need to feel that way around Jesus. I’m glad he lets me join him in his suffering and shares with me in mine.

Death and Resurrection

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To follow Jesus means to accept the cross, to walk with him against imperial violence and religious collaboration, and to pass through death and resurrection.

~The Last Week, Borg and Crossan

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

~Philippians 3:10-11

For followers of Jesus, we are called to participate in the resurrection as much as we are called to celebrate it. It’s not just a historical event for us, a day we celebrate once a year. It is the reality in which we live. Resurrection inhabits every moment of every day. New life is always emerging from our chaos.

But new life requires death. Rising with him comes only from suffering and dying with him. Yes, Jesus died for me. Yes, Jesus rose for me. And yes, he died and rose for you, too. But he didn’t do it so we would talk about it one day a year. He did it so we could participate in it, weaving death and resurrection into the fabric of our lives.

This week, this Holy Week, is about participating in Jesus’s journey toward death. Finding him as he prays in the garden, standing with him on trial, sitting before him on the cross. Or, like the disciples (and most likely us too), sleeping while he prays in the garden, denying him while he stands on trial, and fleeing from him on the cross.  

But even for us who sleep, deny and flee from him, he is waiting for us.

It is good news to me, this death and resurrection. Because it means that my suffering is not meaningless, that my dead ends can become new beginnings. It means that when my soul feels like death, I am close to new life. Resurrection is right around the corner.

[Resurrection says that] there is a new creation bursting forth
right here in the middle of this one
and there is a new heaven and a new earth coming together
and that this Jesus, in his resurrection insists that in the conquering of death
he has brought about something new
something you can trust
that whatever is holding you down
whatever feels like it’s drowning you
whatever feels like it’s a weight chained to your ankle
does not have the last word

That is resurrection

Sunday (featuring Rob Bell), The Liturgists