Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - The gifts of suffering

John 16:12-15
Romans 5:1-5

            In J.K Rowling’s book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,( New York, NY : Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.  p823) there is a conversation between Harry and Dumbledore that follows Harry’s great loss of his god-father.  Harry is suffering, he is struggling.  The conversation follows as such:
               “I know how you are feeling, Harry,” said Dumbledore very quietly.
               “No, you don’t,” said Harry, and his voice was suddenly loud and strong.  White-hot anger leapt inside him.  Dumbledore knew nothing about his feelings.
               “You see, Dumbledore?” said Phineas Nigellus slyly, “Never try to understand the students.  They hate it.  They would much rather be tragically misunderstood, wallow in self-pity, stew in their own –”
               “That’ enough, Phineas,” said Dumbledore.
               Harry turned his back on Dumbledore and stared determinedly out of the opposite window. …
               “There is no shame in what you are feeling, Harry,” said Dumbledore’s voice.  “On the contrary…the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength.”
               Harry felt the white-hot anger lick his insides, blazing in the terrible emptiness, filling him with the desire to hurt Dumbledore for his calmness and his empty words.
               “My greatest strength, is it?” said Harry, his voice shaking as he stared out at the Quidditch stadium, no longer seeing it. “You haven’t got a clue…You don’t know…”
               “What don’t I know?” asked Dumbledore calmly.
               It was too much.  Harry turned around, shaking with rage.
               “I don’t want to talk about how I feel, all right?”
               “Harry, suffering like this proves you are still a man!  This pain is part of being human –”
               “THEN – I – DON’T – WANT – TO – BE- HUMAN!” Harry roared, and he seized one of the delicate silver instruments form the spindle-legged table beside him and flung it across the room.  It shattered into a hundred tiny pieces against the wall. Several of the pictures let out yells of anger and fright and the portrait of Armando Dippet said, “Really!”
               “I DON’T CARE!” Harry yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace.  “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE - ”
               He seized the table on which the silver instrument had stood and threw that too.  It broke apart on the floor and the legs rolled in different directions.
               “You do care,” said Dumbledore.  He had not flinched or made a single move to stop Harry demolishing his office.  His expression was calm, almost detached.  “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”
            We all have times of suffering.  It is part of the human experience.  It is part of being alive.  None of us want to suffer.  None of us enjoy suffering.  And yet, the passage I just read tells us that suffering is our greatest strength.  That it IS what makes us the people we are.  Paul said it in today’s passage as well.  “suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
            But the truth is we have choices about how we react to the pain of suffering.  We have choices about what we will do with our suffering.  Paul Pearsall in his book, The Beethoven Factor (Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2003) says we tend to react to trauma or suffering in one of three ways.  We can become victims, or become beaten, bitter, sorrowful because of what we have endured.  We can become survivors, which means we make it through but continue to wear the scars.  Or we can become thrivers.  Thrivers take what they have endured and create something new and beautiful out of it.  I believe that our faith can have a great deal to do with how we respond in the face of trauma.
             While I was in Ohio, I was part of a wonderful and amazing lectionary group - a group of 12 pastors who met together weekly to study scripture, pray together, eat together, sometimes sing together and sometimes play together.  We were brother and sister Christians on the journey towards a deeper understanding of Christ, of God, of the Spirit and of love.  But we were/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 were 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 that group, deeply thankful for their thoughtfulness and faith, their contributions to the community, their abiding friendships, the gifts they gave simply through their weekly presence. 
           One week when we gathered, our group members had much wisdom to offer on this passage from Paul in Romans 5:1-5.  At one point in the conversation we were particularly discussing verses 3-5.  To quote it once more, "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. It was 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. These comments 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 and cannot be helpful.  I agree with all of this.  But then somehow it was either said or implied 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 the previous two years when my family had gone through an unbelievable time of loss and tragedy and scandal and humiliation and my life and the lives of my kids had 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 attacks aimed my way, 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 strive to be, the person God calls me to be, because of my struggles."  Silence.
"Okay," came the response finally, "but would you have said that two years ago when you were actually going through all of that?"
"No", I laughed.  And then, again to the surprise of myself more than anyone I added, "and yes."  During that incredibly difficult time for my family there came a period when I thought I might actually be broken by what was happening, when I felt that maybe I would not be able to hold it together.  The world was nothing like I thought it was.  My marriage, my life, my ministry, my views of other human beings, my understanding of the world - nothing was what I had 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 the deepest, darkest time ever in my life, that I felt God's presence so incredibly strongly.  I felt God's arms holding me, carrying me, speaking to me of companionship and love and care.  And it was not just with God directly.  I connected with people whom I never would have connected with at such deep levels, I made meaningful and enduring friendships (including with folk from that very group) 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 experiences and needs at that time. 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 stronger appreciation for the beauty around me in the midst of darkness.  I am more grateful now for the birds singing, the sun shining, the breeze blowing, for little gifts and kind words, open smiles and firm 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 the difficult tragedies 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 or my kids would have experienced.  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 it came to me THROUGH the experiences.  And while I am still a person who makes mistakes, big and little, who "sins", who hurts others, I 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?
Paul starts this passage with the words, “we boast in our sufferings”.  I would not say that I "boast" in my suffering.  I would not say that I "take pride" (different translation) in my problems.  In truth, I find that problematic.  When we become “martyrs” for a cause we can lose sight of the real meaning – of serving and loving God and one another.  We can become too focused on a single issue and forget to see the forest for the single tree.  It becomes at some level about us and about our ability to withstand, to have integrity, to be strong.  Again, our call is to be about love – loving God, self and each other.  Boasting in our suffering is not about loving.  But while that part of the passage does NOT speak to me in this way, I would say that God has been present for me through all of the pain we endured, that I am different because of it, and that, yes, 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.