Sunday, June 18, 2017

Suffering and Joy

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) on Sunday, June 18, 2017. The revised common lectionary text for Year a, Proper 6 (Second Sunday after Pentecost) was Psalm 100 and Romans 5: 1-8. An audio recording is available on Mt. Olivet's website

Often in the American church in the twenty-first century, we focus on the call to praise, like the one we heard in Psalm 100 this morning. Many churches, many evangelists, many congregations spread the message that life in Christ is a happy life. That if you just believe with faith the size of a mustard seed, your life will be good. Have you seen this message? I have. And it annoys the crap out of me.
            Although we are called to praise, God does not promise us a good life. In fact, in the revised common lectionary Gospel lesson, which I did not ask our liturgist to read this moring, God promises the disciples hardship as they go out into the world. In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves [....] Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Not a happy clappy life in Christ. It’s an odd thing that the lectionary does here, putting the praise of Psalm 100 side by side with this warning about hardship to come in the ministry.
In the church, we don’t talk enough about the fact that suffering is part of life. It is the shadow side of our knowledge and our free will. In fact, the presence of suffering in human life is one of the few things that most world religions agree on. (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism). I admire that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism put this idea first: “All life is suffering, pain.”
Our reality is that we live in a broken world, and this brokenness is visible at all levels. In our personal lives we experience the grief and loss, illness, and poverty. In our communities, we experience systemic racism and bigotry toward minority groups on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, faith, ability, and ethnicity. American politics have never been more divided, and this week, in our community, political disagreement became physical violence. If we look further afield, we can see large-scale, ongoing armed conlfict that destroys communities just like ours and turns people just like us into refugees. Indeed, the very planet under our feet is broken. Global climate change is disrupting the natural systems that life on this planet depends on. All of this brokenness fills our newscasts, and it we share it on social media. We see five people shot in Alexandria, and hundreds affected by the fire in London, and thousands in Syria or in Iraq wondering when the next air strikes will come. We see all this brokenness, and we are overwhelemed. 
We are not very good at dealing with suffering. And I think we get it wrong in two ways: Either we turn away entirely, refusing to acknowledge the suffering that is there in our own lives or in the lives of our communities; OR, we try to rush through the brokenness.
Let’s start with the way that we refuse to acknowledge suffering and brokenness. When you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store and the clerk says, “Hi, how are you?” What is the correct answer? “Good,” or “Fine.” This is a ritual that we each participate in dozens of times a day with coworkers, with bosses, with neighbors, with friends, with customer service personnel. Although the question in the ritual asks how we are, we’re actually not allowed to say anything other than “good” or “fine.” Don’t believe me? Break the rules this week. Tell someone you’re wonderful, or tired, or that you have a headache, or that you are overwhelmed by the brokennes of the environment. I will lay odds that the reaction you get is discomfort. Giving any answer other than the expected one in this ritual communication is just not done.
            Now sometimes, the people close to us actually do want to know how we’re doing. When the question goes beyond participation in the ritual to express actual concern, it sounds different, “how are you?” “how are you, really?” In this case, the person asking the question will make eye contact and lean toward you.
This “how are you ritual” might seem like a small thing, but I would argue that its ubiquity in American life, and the rigidity of the requirement that we respond to the question with a positive answer are evidence of the way we focus relentlessly on the positive. We publicly affirm that we are good and fine even when we are not, and when we get home, we distract ourselves with the many media available to us on our variety of devices, , with food and medication, with alcohol and drugs.
            The other way that we get it wrong is by rushing through suffering.  Romans 5:3-4 tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Passages like this one, lead us to platitudes like “every cloud has a silver lining” and “God has a reason” and “God does not give you more than you can bear.”
While I think that these platitudes point to an important truth—that living through tragedy changes us in profound ways—our eagerness to emphasize the reasons and the silver linings lead us to rush through the suffering in unhealthy ways. We need to slow down. We need to recognize that we are in the moment of suffering and let it be okay that we are not good. We need to take the time to actually feel our feelings.
In my experience, there will be a lot of feelings. Not only the sadness and pain of the event that caused our suffering, but also uncertainty, and fear about that uncertainty, and doubt and confusion. It is not easy to let ourselves feel these feeling. But you’ll notice that Romans doesn’t jump straight from suffering to hope. The intermediaries are endurance and character.  Sitting with our feelings long enough to recognize them and name them is an important step.
I have a couple of disclaimers. What I have said here is not a call to tolerate abuse or ongoing trauma. If you are in a relationship that is causing you ongoing harm, get help and get out safely. Reach out to the staff of Mt. Olivet, reach out to someone you trust. Reach. Out. This is also not a call to inflict pain upon ourselves in the ways that some in the history of Christianity have done. No self-flaggelation, no hair shirts, no beds of nails for us. We encounter sufficient suffering in our daily lives without seeking it out or inventing it.
Suffering is not a contest. We should not cry matyr to show that our own suffering is the worst, but neither should we minimize our own experience because someone else has greater suffering.
Each of us reacts to the suffering in our lives and in our world differently. And the process of moving from suffereing to endurance to character to hope is not a linear one. There are setbacks and delays and repetitions. It can take months or even years. In the mean time, though, life goes on. Even as we are learning to live with suffering, there will also be moments in our lives worthy of celebration.
And this, I think, is the greatest challenge: holding in tension the awareness that our broken world is full of suffering and the conviction that this same world is also beautiful and worthy of celebration. I’ve noticed this coming to a head lately in activist spaces on social media. One member of the community will say to another, “How can you care about new bike lanes when children are dying in the streets?” This question presumes that suffering and celebration are a zero-sum game, that we can only be engaged in one at a time. By this logic, if we are in a state of grief or trauma or brokenness, life can only be sad and dark and unhappy.
When I was widowed four years ago, I chose to wear black. That fast from color was a reminder to myself to slow down and make space for the pain and doubt and confusion. It was important to me at that time that my outward appearance reflect the dark wilderness that I felt like I was navigating, and I kept choosing black for about six months. In the early days especially,  I remember seeing shock, and sometimes judgement, on other people’s faces when they saw me laughing and smiling. As with the “how are you” ritual that expects only a positive answer, there was an expectiation that I as a widow wearing black would be perpetually sad and weepy.
Life is not just one way though, it never is. We can make space for the experience of suffering alongside our celebration. We can welcome it to the table as a ligitimate element of our experience of this earthly life.
I’m asking you today to pay more attention to the suffering in your own life, in the life of your community, and in the world, but I don’t want you to wallow in it or be incapacitated by its magnitude. Recognize that in our broken world, suffering exists alongside joy. And recognize that God is present with us equally in suffering and in joy.
When we are able to do this, when we recognize that suffering is a part of life that we should experience rather than one to escape, when we are able to be aware of both suffering and joy at the same time, it changes the way we relate to suffering in our own life  and in the lives of others. Often when we encounter suffering in the life of someone we are close to, we jump into fixing mode. We offer solutions, we reach for the platitudes and start naming the potential silver linings of the dark clouds. While I am a strong proponent of the idea that good things can come from bad things, I also know that this mental leap is one that the suffering person needs to make in their own time. As people giving moral support we need to be able to say, “This is awful. I am sorry you are going through this. I am here to listen.” And we need to stop there, before we start solutioneering.
It also changes the way we pray. Rather than praying, “Lord, make it stop,” we can pray, “God, be with us. God, help us see. God, give us strength.” Amen.

1 comment:

  1. "Life is not just one way though, it never is. We can make space for the experience of suffering alongside our celebration."<-----thank you for this. We went to MSI today for Father's Day/Golden Boy Birthday Part 2, and the whole way there I was pondering the Grenfell Tower fire and feeling just sick about it and expecting I wouldn't be able to enjoy the afternoon with my family at all...and then I did have fun, and then on the way home remembered how sick I felt about it all, and felt guilty about having forgotten. It's hard to feel all the feelings sometimes.

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