February 25, 2024

Last week, I mentioned that this Lenten season is a time of self-examination and reflection.  It’s a time for looking at some of the deeper and weightier issues of our lives and our faith.

It is with tender care that I raise this morning’s question: why is there suffering?  I ask the question gently because I know that there is no one here whose life has been exempt from pain.  I know that to raise this question is to tread on sacred ground that is very close to the heart.

There are many in our church family who have faced painful issues of home, family, jobs, and physical health.  And the love of the congregation embraces all those who have lost loved ones and dear friends.

Tragedies of immense human proportions, as well as the smaller ones that capsize individual lives, seem to land in our world like random drops of rain.  And the thing that never seems to quite add up is this, stated in the classic way:  if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does God allow such things to happen?

Well, if it’s any consolation, theologians have been asking that question in just that way for centuries, and have yet to find any consensus about an answer.  When I told Dadgie that this would be my sermon topic for this morning, I suggested that the whole sermon should be just three words: “I don’t know.”  But that’s not terribly helpful.  So, if I may be so bold, I’d like to offer this morning if not an answer to the question, at least a thoughtful response.  I don’t expect that it’s going to set the world of systematic theology on its ear, but then, I’m not all that interested in the world of systematic theology, anyway.  This comes from my heart, not just my head.

I think we suffer in order to survive!  I’m not sure how to explain that except with a story.  Dadgie and I have some friends whose little girl was lost in a house fire many years ago.  Hardly any experience of life could be more devastating.  That little girl’s mother watched all the joy evaporate from her life as her house and her child went up in flames.  In the months and years following that horrible night, she and the rest of the family had to cope with tidal waves of emotion and chasms of depression that threatened the very fabric of their lives.  But they surrounded themselves with one another, and wrapped themselves in love.  They were embraced by a church family that never gave up on them.  In time, that broken family found healing, and their church was bound together by ministering to them.

Am I suggesting that the Almighty set that house on fire and took that child’s life for some “purpose” of healing the family and the church?  Never!  I could not stand here in front of you and bring a word of hope and faith if I believed that.

Nonetheless, healing and love and community did rise up out of the ashes of that fire.  Nothing can justify or explain such a loss, but for that church, as well as that family, a kind of indomitable bond did come into being that would not have been without the despair of that loss.  And I am convinced that such health and love and community are absolute necessities for the survival of humanity – necessities because, without the shared struggles characteristic of a community of love, we seem to consistently degenerate into self-serving and ultimately self-destructive creatures.

Witness, in stark contrast to that family’s victory of love over adversity, the sad final years of one of the wealthiest men in history, Howard Hughes, a man whose humanness gradually slipped through his own fingers.  From the age of fifty he was thin and bedraggled.  In his last years he weighed only ninety pounds.  He was dehydrated and starved to the point of being little more than a skeleton.  He had hired fifteen personal attendants, but he died malnourished in a state of gross physical neglect.  It all happened largely because of his obsession with closing himself off for protection from the miseries that could befall him out in the real world.  Without the touch of another hand, unable to accept the risks and challenges of love, secluded within the comfortable vault of self-protective isolation, the human spirit atrophies and dies.  We need one another.

But even those of us who are not mega-millionaires find our own ways to avoid the life-sustaining ties of human interdependence.  We can use television, work, alcohol, and even superficial social occasions and groups to avoid contact with one another’s desperation and joy.  We need some kind of off-setting force, some gravitational attraction, that compels us to yield ourselves to one another.

It is by our suffering that we are driven into each other’s arms.  It is by encountering pain, arm in arm, hand in hand, that we experience triumph.  And it may well be that suffering and triumph are the very warp and woof of the fabric of life!  Without them the strands just don’t hold together.

But, with apologies to Martin Luther King, Jr., to say that “suffering is redemptive” is only part of the story.  Because there are also plenty of folks whose trauma and pain only lead to bitterness and defeat.  Like the old man I once knew who lived most of his life in an armchair, not because he couldn’t walk, but because there was no place special he wanted to go.  As a young man, he had been a boxer, a brash and spirited guy who liked to try anything new.  He thought he had the world on a string.  But a car accident left him with a permanent limp.  He couldn’t face the world as the “half-a-man” he now thought himself to be, so he retired to his easy-chair and existed on a steady diet of bitterness for fifty years.

Suffering will drive us into each other’s arms, and thereby lead us to triumph, if we allow it to.  But suffering refused, suffering denied, takes a strangle-hold on a person’s life and strips it of its potential.  Those unfortunate souls who expect and demand of life that it be happy, fair, and relatively painless are unknowingly making preparations for the denial of suffering and the wasting of life.

Maybe that’s why Jesus saved his most angry, scathing rebuke for Peter, who tried to tell him he shouldn’t have to suffer.  Jesus had just finished explaining that he was going to be rejected, beaten, and killed in Jerusalem (not hard to grasp really; the handwriting was already on the wall.  You don’t take on the religious/political power structures of society, call them all a bunch of hypocrites, show them up at their own game, march into the middle of their capital, and then expect to avoid the consequences).  But Peter would have none of it.  No suffering talk for him.  And I sympathize with Peter.  He didn’t want to think of this man he loved, this friend, this companion, suffering.  Who would?  Besides, wasn’t this Jesus-of-Nazareth movement that he was now a part of supposed to be the best game in town?  Peter’s like us.  He just wants to be on the winning team, on the up-side.  And there’s certainly nothing unnatural about that.  It doesn’t seem to be a malicious or evil motivation.

But Jesus didn’t mince words.  He verbally spat at Peter, called him a devil, and told him he was on the wrong side!  Peter would not, in Jesus’ presence be allowed to deny suffering.  In fact, Jesus went on to explain, those who wanted to follow him couldn’t deny suffering either.  They were to take up their crosses if they wanted to come along.

That message is no more popular today than it was then.  These days, we have a whole culture built on the denial of suffering.  With the right education, the right job, the right home in the right neighborhood, the right cars, the right toothpaste, every American is supposed to be living out some sort of “dream.”  In truth, we are becoming more and more isolated, rootless, disconnected.

And where in this world does the sense of community seem to be strongest, the Christian Church growing like wild-fire, and faith and joy flourishing?  In poor third world countries – places where people are connected to each other through shared suffering.

So what’s my point – let’s all be miserable?  Just the opposite!  In fact, it’s our acceptance of suffering, and the sharing of suffering, that ultimately allows us to set aside misery instead of carrying it around like a fashion accessory.

If suffering is half the fabric of life, the rest is joy, triumph!  Accepting suffering in life means accepting joy as well!  To receive and move through suffering is to know triumph!  To risk tears with friends is also to drink together from the cup of laughter.  There are few more powerful feelings in life than the experience of shared joy that goes hand in hand with shared suffering.

Does the Lord of Life make the specific things happen that cause us pain?  No, I don’t think so.  But, is it necessary that life and existence be put together in such a way that suffering is part of the mix?  I believe it is absolutely essential!  It throws us where we need to be to survive – into each other’s arms.

At an outdoor mass in San Salvador on the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the crowds gathered in the streets despite the government’s warnings that there might be trouble.  And trouble there was.  The army moved in to disperse the crowd, firing shots in the air.  In the panic that ensued, the situation got out of control.  The soldiers began firing into the crowd.  A woman ran for her life, along with other members of her church.  She carried her infant child in her arms, and held her close to her chest as she ran through the street.  But she didn’t make it.  As she felt the bullet sting through her back, she threw her baby into the air, and into the hands of those trusted friends who were running with her, members of her church community.

Why is there suffering?  Perhaps it’s not a complete answer, but I submit the following: driven by our suffering into each other’s arms, we pass from one person to another that which is of greatest importance – our love.

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