Thursday, May 16, 2013

Gratitude for the struggles

I am part of a wonderful and amazing lectionary group - a group of 10 pastors who meet together weekly to study scripture, pray together, eat together, sometimes sing together and sometimes play together.  We are brother and sister Christians on the journey towards a deeper understanding of Christ, of God, of the Spirit and of love.  But we are also friends - people I know I can call on and count on in crisis, people I do call on and count on in crisis. We are a "house church" in the truest sense of the word, a community offering care that is not just theoretical but practical as well.  I am so deeply grateful for every single person in this group, deeply thankful for their care, their contributions to the community, their deep and abiding friendships, the gifts they give simply through their weekly presence.  Therefore, it is with a little trepidation that I say that I hope that I am not betraying confidences by reflecting a little in this public way on our group conversation this last Tuesday, which was one of those that has stuck to me, stuck with me, and continues to push on me to think, to pray, and to grow.

Our leader for the week (we all take turns leading the Bible study) as well as the other participants had much wisdom to offer on many different topics ranging from the Spirit (and our failure as Presbyterians to often give as much space and attention to this part of the trinity as we do to the other two persons), to the passage from Paul in Romans 5:1-5.  At one point in the conversation we were particularly discussing verses 3-5, "And not only that, but we also 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 through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

I admit I had been very quiet that morning. This is a week of anniversaries - difficult, painful anniversaries and I am not unaffected by these.  I was even, I found, a little concerned that I might be bringing the group down with my sad energy.  But I found it more than a little interesting that the group was discussing how unhelpful it is when people tell each other that they are supposed to be grateful for their sufferings.  Comments like "everything happens for a reason" and "God never gives you more than you can handle" are not helpful. They minimize the pain we suffer, they discount our experiences in the moment.  Telling people they should be grateful for their suffering because it will produce endurance which produces character which produces hope is not, cannot be helpful.  I agree with all of this.  But then somehow it was either said or implied (or I heard it wrong, which is also possible) that people can't really be grateful for the deep traumas they endure.  And there I was, sitting in pain, sitting in grief, sitting in memories of a year ago when my children lost their father to prison, and my life radically changed as I became a single parent and sole provider for my family, for my household, a leader of a congregation without a partner to support me, sitting in memories of hurtful comments aimed my way by people who were themselves hurt by what my partner at the time had done, sitting in regrets for things that should have been or could have been done differently, sitting in loss - and from that place, from that place of pain I heard myself saying, "I am grateful for the suffering that I have endured."  Huh?  Did I just say that?  "I have deepened - in my person, in my faith, in my compassion and empathy, in my ability to understand and forgive, in my commitment to see what really is and what is not, mostly in my connection to God.  I have deepened and become more the person I want to be, the person God calls me to be, because of my struggles."  Silence.

"Okay," came the response,"but would you have said that two years ago?"

"No", I laughed.  And then, again to the surprise of myself more than anyone I added, "and yes."  Two years ago, or even two and a half years ago, there came a time when I thought I might actually crack, when I felt that maybe I was falling apart.  The world was nothing like I thought it was.  My marriage, my partner, my life, my ministry - nothing was what I thought it was.  And the things I prayed for were answered by "no" and "no" again.  Every morning I found myself just repeating the mantra, "Please, God.  Please, God!"  over and over and yet things were not getting better.  Every day brought more pain and new levels of hurt.  And yet...and yet, it was in the midst of that, in the midst of all of that, that I felt God's presence so incredibly strongly.  I felt God's arms holding me, carrying me, speaking to me of presence and love and care.  I connected with people whom I never would have connected with at such deep levels, I made friends (some for a reason, some for a season, and many for a life-time, including folk from that very group) quickly and deeply who were amazing and supportive and wonderful and who continue to shine God's light for me.  I learned who was real and true and caring (most of the people I knew and connected with, actually!) and who could not walk with me through the crisis, and I came to understand that those who could not walk with me - that too was not out of meanness, but out of their own situations and needs.  People shared with me their own sufferings at a much deeper level because they knew I would get it, and so it deepened my ministry as well.  And I developed a much, much deeper appreciation for the beauty around me in the midst of darkness.  I am much more grateful for the birds singing, the sun shining, the breeze blowing, for little gifts and kind words, open smiles and strong hugs, the presence of children in my life, play, dance, music.  I see blessings and feel blessed where I did not see them or know them or love them before.

Did I want any of this to happen?  Of course not.  In my wildest, deepest, most awful nightmares I never saw this coming and never could have imagined the pain and suffering that I would have experienced over the last two and a half years.  But it would be inaccurate to say that I am ungrateful for it.  Because God did bring gifts, God did bring life, God brought presence in a way I had never experienced before.  And while I am still a person who makes mistakes, big and little, who "sins", who hurts others,  I still see that I am becoming more fully the person God calls me to be because I have deepened through the suffering.  How could I not be grateful?

I would not say that I "boast" in my suffering.  I would not say that I "take pride" (different translation) in my problems.  But I would say that God was present through it all, that I am different because of it, that I am grateful for the struggles.  I pray the same for all of you.  I don't wish pain on you, but pain will come.  And so my prayer is that when it does, that you, too, would thrive through adversity, grow through the struggles, deepen and find gratitude in the midst of it all.