“Suffering: A Survival Guide”

“Roots and Wings” series, part 7.

Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C. on February 28, 2016 at the 10:00 a.m. Service.

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“Suffering: A Survival Guide”
Roots and Wings: Part 7
(Luke 18:1-8, Psalms 42-43)

Perhaps this is painfully, perfectly obvious, and almost presumptuous of me to say, but I hope you know that I don’t have everything figured out. I think it is necessary for me to say that because honestly we send mixed messages about it, right? I stand up here, or Bromleigh does when she is preaching, in special attire that sets me apart, religious authority literally hanging around my neck. I stand a few feet above you, which admittedly serves the practical purpose of allowing you to see me better, but still…I am a few feet above you. I have degrees called “Master of Divinity” and “Doctor of Ministry,” and I have something like the seal of approval of the wider church that we call “ordination.” But you know what all that gets me? Well, I think the best I can hope for, and ultimately the best you can hope for, is that it gives me the ability to ask good questions.

That’s what Bromleigh and I have really been trying to do in this Roots and Wings series of sermons. We have been trying to set aside some of the unhelpful questions we often ask about life, about God, about faith, and see if we can lead you into some more helpful questions. That’s my goal in talking about suffering today as well. When it comes to suffering, I don’t have too many answers, in part because the questions we usually ask are not great, and in part because I think, and yes, I am giving away the end of my sermon here, the most profound insights of our faith about suffering all end in question marks.

Suffering. What is it? Well, to borrow Justice Potter Stewart’s description of another difficult to define concept, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of experience I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description “suffering”, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…” We know it when we see suffering, and we know it when we experience it. We know it when we experience something that makes us feel less human, less whole. It is not just pain of whatever sort, but it is pain that separates us from who we truly are.

Without trying to define it further, I can say that three are three basic types of suffering. There is suffering we bring on ourselves; suffering others bring on us; and suffering from stuff that just happens. When faced with real, actual instances of suffering, it is not always easy to sort which type it is. Some of the suffering we bring on ourselves we would rather blame on other people. For some of the suffering others bring upon us, we sadly blame ourselves. Maybe we are too quick to claim that some suffering just happens, when if we were really honest we would see that it is of our own making.

But when we have done the intellectual and emotional and confessional work we need to do to identify the source of our suffering, what we are really interested in is how to bring it to an end.

I think there are three basic responses to suffering. They don’t neatly pair up with the three sources of suffering, but all the responses come into play with all the sources. When experiencing suffering ourselves, or seeing the suffering of others, it is good to discover first whether there is anything that can be done about it. When a tree falls down on someone your first thought is to see if you can move the tree. When a person has cancer you wonder if some intervention can take the cancer out or at least minimize the suffering. When a person is in some kind of self-destructive pattern you stand alongside them to see if they can find their way out of the tangled mess in which they find themselves. Ideally the person can help themselves; alternatively, maybe you can help them or some kind of expert can step in.

Taking action is particularly important when it comes to the type of suffering that comes from injustice, especially injustice that we have a hand in creating. My involvement with the church in Angola in part stems from the fact that the United States had a large role in fueling and extending the 27 year civil war that caused untold suffering for millions. As a citizen of this country, I need to work to help lessen the continuing of that suffering today.

But, of course, we can’t act like there is always something we can do about suffering. We are probably most comfortable (and I think, contrary to some stereotypes we often hear, that this is just as true for women as for men – women like to “fix” things too) – we are most comfortable when we are acting, doing, fixing, solving, but there is a whole lot of suffering, no matter its source, that can’t be fixed. When that is the case, when stuff can’t be fixed, it is important that we not just “jump ship.”

If our own suffering can’t be fixed we are tempted to jump ship through disengaging emotionally. If all we feel is pain, we would rather not feel at all. We also are tempted to jump ship through distractions, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, or shopping, or bullying, or accumulating.

When the suffering of others can’t be fixed, we are tempted to jump ship by distancing ourselves from those who suffer. We call less often, we keep the relationship on the surface, we refuse to open ourselves to their pain, we turn the channel, we don’t want to know.

Rather than jumping ship a more faithful response is to be present and to be helpful without the goal of fixing. Sometimes you can help someone endure, even when the suffering can’t be stopped. A big part of this is helping the person through the crazy mental and emotional chaos that often comes with suffering. It is really a matter of trying to help them tell their story in a particular way, a more meaningful way. Say a woman with young children is struggling terribly financially, living paycheck to paycheck. Life is hectic, just putting food on the table is difficult, the children don’t understand. Say she had to divorce her husband because he drank and hit the children, and he proved completely unwilling to do anything about his problem. To help that woman see her suffering, caused by her separation from her abusive husband, as, I might say “honorable,” or even better “faithful,” is a great gift. The difficulty she is going through is because of her love for her children, her responsibility to care for them; it is honoring the commitment she has to them. Life would be easier with the income of her ex, but life is better, more faithful, even in suffering, because it is for the sake of love. Author Karen Blixen (Out of Africa, Babette’s Feast) wrote, ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.’ We are doing the work of God if we are able to help people tell their own story so they see their suffering as an expression of faithfulness.

But now we must push through to the end of this matter, and here the answers and fixes, the explanations and stories break down. There is some suffering that we can nothing about and that we can make no sense of. The death of a child. Tsunamis that kill hundreds of thousands. Cancer that takes a beloved spouse in weeks. A disease that leaves you with an active mind, and a paralyzed body, or one that does the opposite. These are the sources of the suffering we fear the most, that tear us apart. There is no reason, no fix, no honor in them. They just are. The suffering just is, and it just aches. It is important that we not try to insert God here in some simplistic way. Anyone who has been there knows that there is nothing more frustrating, or even painful, than hearing someone say, “Oh, someday you’ll understand the reason for all this…” Or, “Oh, I’m sure this is all in God’s plan…” Our faith has toyed with those answers, but in the end we settle on the realization that these things just are. Some suffering just is.

These are situations in which we can’t help but cry out: Why? What is this? Why have I lost heart? Why can I not find rest? Why have you turned away from me? Or as Jesus, hanging on the cross, quotes todays reading, Psalm 42: Why have you forsaken me?

And here is where I have no answers. Here is where we have no answers. And the question is the last thing spoken.

But the question, even as the last thing spoken, is not the last thing. We don’t have answers, but we do have each other. When you sign up as a follower of Jesus Christ, you are saying to all your fellow followers, I will be with you. When you signed up as a follower of Jesus Christ, which perhaps you did at one time in a transformational moment of your life, or perhaps you did slowly over the decades, or perhaps as you need to do again this morning – when you signed up as a follower of Jesus Christ, you said to this world, I will be with you. I will be with you when you suffer. As Jesus said “Lo, I will be with you, till the end of the age,” he meant in part, that he would be present through you, for others. And he meant he would be present through others, for you. As Jesus says in his time of suffering, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is the ultimate question of suffering, and we don’t have an answer, but we have a presence – a presence in the name of Jesus Christ that enables us to get through, because Jesus himself will be with us always, and we will be present for each other always, and that is the very presence of God.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.