Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Pain - and another request for sermon help

Maybe you've waded through CS Lewis' "The Problem of Pain", or maybe you've seen the movie "Shadowlands" about his life, in which he reminds us that "pain is God's megaphone, seeking to get our attention." Or perhaps you're familiar with Simone Weil, and her classic statement about beauty and pain being the only two ways in which we encounter God (someone could please help me with the exact quote?).

I get it at the conceptual level, but at the level of reality, there are times when this whole, "pain will bring you closer to God" stuff is hard to embrace. I've been studying Hosea 6:1-3 today in preparation for preaching this coming Sunday. Put in the worst cynical light, a casual paraphrase of the sentiment found there might read something like this:

"Hey there everybody, it's time to return to God! Because we neglected Him, He threw a fit: destroyed our crops, killed our kids, leveled our land. Most of our families were broken up by war, and the great mass of us have been taken captive. But hey... He's a God of love, so let's come back to Him now and worship Him. After all, He was really mad, but that's behind Him now, and we're certain that He'll bring restoration, goodness, and mercy to us. I just can't wait to fall in love all over again with the One who takes credit for these disasters. I'm sure He has great things in mind for our future...." This skewed lens of bitterness needs to be dealt with if we're to get on in this fallen world and have an honest relationship with God.

So I'm preaching on this Hosea passage this coming Sunday. I need to address the reality that our idealistic and romanticized notions of love have somehow created an expectation that love and discipline, love and suffering, love and pain are mutually exclusive. I understand that mindset, because living in a fallen world, much is done in the name of discipline, pain, and suffering that is nothing more than destructive abuse. AND yet.... it's also true that where there is no discipline, it's a sign that there's no love. AND it's also true that down through the ages, countless millions have turned TO God in the midst of pain and suffering rather than away, finding the only sense of comfort and shelter possible, and able to function as people of joy and dignity precisely because they did not endlessly rail in bitterness against God. Geoffry Bull comes to mind as one of many millions. I've seen this many times in pastoral care situations. I don't know that suffering can always be categorized: "this is discipline..." "this on the other hand is simply the result of living in a fallen world." But I do believe that God CAN and DOES use suffering to draw people to Himself. and have some thoughts of my own on the valuable role of suffering, and God's character. Those are some preliminary thoughts of my own. If you have thoughts on the relationship between suffering one's relationship with God, I'd like to hear them. I really appreciated the input a couple of weeks ago, and any offered now would be helpful.


At 10/10/07 07:27, Blogger Tom said...

Love is an orientation, not a state, of our souls. What does this mean?

We must choose to love; it does not come naturally. It is extremely hard work.

What does this have to do with suffering?

Suffering and pain "compels us to recognize as real what we do not think possible", to quote Weil.

God wants us to live in the real world. With real Love. It is the greatest mystery that only pain wakes us to the true world of Love.

The cross.

Simone Weil continues, "The tremendous greatness of Christianity comes from the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy against suffering but a supernatural use of suffering."

That is my abstract version on pain.

Now the concrete.

On Monday, the day after you give your sermon on pain, my six-week-old son will undergo heart surgery. (I write about it here.

He was born with Down syndrome, a surprise.

The emotions of the past weeks are all jumbled, mixed together. Pain and joy and love and fear and hope and terror and trust.

Like clothes mixing in a dryer.

All too often we try to "sort these clothes" - these feeling - into clear and separate piles. It can't be done.

More Weil. "Pain is the root of knowledge."

I can attest that her claim is true. God is indeed more real to me today than He was six short weeks ago.

As for Monday, maybe I would rather remain ignorant.

At 10/10/07 10:08, Blogger Andrew said...

When life is going very well, I often begin to assume a sense of self sufficiency. The thought process is that things are successful because of my works, my intelligence, my skillfulness, etc.

The trouble is lack of perspective; instead of looking at our good situation and seeing God's good works, we somehow see them as MY good works.

This is where pain and suffering come in to rock our world.

From pain we can come to the realization that we (and all of humanity) cannot succeed on our own. We begin to see who we really are. Our successes are not of our own doing. We realize that we are all in way over our heads, and the only way to truly live is to be utterly dependent on the strength that supersedes this existence, the rock that is Jesus Christ.

At 10/10/07 14:27, Anonymous donte said...

I don’t like to think about the idea that pain allows us to understand or appreciate our need for God. As true as that may be, I believe that it is incomplete. Perhaps the greater goal of pain is to push us closer to one another. In my own life it looks like this:

Because I remember the pain of losing my father to a violent crime; I have real compassion and empathy for people who have lost loved ones in war, through acts of terrorism, gang violence, tribal conflict, or by any other oppressive regime.

Because I grew up with the pain of poverty; I grieve for all those around the world who do not have the basic necessities to survive.

Because I’ve felt the pain of being marginalized; I support organizations that seek justice for the oppressed, provide a voice for the voiceless, and dignity to the forgotten.

Because I know the pain of feeling disconnected from God; I share my faith with all who are searching for remedies to their own pain.

At 10/10/07 19:27, Blogger Paul said...

Love and Pain are just ways of looking at circumstances. What you might consider an act of Love someone else might consider an act of Pain. The way we look at them is derived from our growing up, from our experiences.

Example: If I grew up on a couch, I might find it painful to give up "TV watching", Where someone who does a lot outdoors would not consider it painful to give up "TV watching" because they don't do it very often. They might even classify it as LOVE (of the outdoors) that made them give it up rather than PAIN (of going out).

Do I think that Pain/Suffering drives us closer to God? I can see how pain and suffering could do it. Because when you believe that there is someone bigger and stronger and greater than yourself, who looks out for you, then you turn to them when you are in pain. Just like a child runs to their parent when they fall down and are hurt, believers should run to God when they are suffering.

Seeking comfort and love from our creator should not only come from pain, but also from a desire to be close to them. The best examples still come from my relationship with my parents. While growing up, I wanted their affection, wanted their approval, wanted their love - so I would do the things they wanted/asked. Just to seek their love. It should be the same way with God. We should obey him, should seek after His desires.

At 10/10/07 22:45, Anonymous Annie said...

I'm no Biblical scholar or anything so I'm not sure I should be replying to this, as my insights come simply out of my own life. I believe that one of the greatest gifts that comes out of pain (however hard to see it at the time) is that pain humbles us... it brings us to our knees before God and we realize our actual place before him. We become acutely aware of our need for him. I think that suffering brings us to a place where we are humbly on our knees - crying out, angry perhaps, confused, overwhelmed, etc - but nevertheless on our knees before him.

I personally have struggled with an eating disorder, depression and other similar issues for almost a decade and the pain that I have experienced has indeed brought me closer to god. Going through the experiences I have endured has humbled me - There is no way in god's green earth that I can say that I am "okay" on my own.... I am desperately aware that I need Him and His love in my life.

Would I have wished for all of these things to happen to me? Would I go back in time and change them? I don't know....... because the longterm result is that I am seeking God and fighting for me life with God leading me forward as my Savior and Redeemer. I wonder about in Hosea.... would they rather have avoided all the "horrible things that happened to them" despite the fact that the end result was restoration with God? I feel like sometimes we get so caught up in the short picture when it comes to these types of ideas, and God is perhaps more interested in the longterm results.

I may not have made any sense whatsoever in this post..... partdon me if it's all a bunch of nonsense... :)

At 11/10/07 11:06, Blogger JenP said...

hi richard. though i was not there sunday for your last sermon (am in sunny CA!), i thought i'd chime in after reading your recent post. i can't help but recall paul brand's book, "The Gift of Pain." a stellar physician, mentor, and writer, he always challenged his readers, his audience, in seeing life from a unique perspective. he particularly enjoyed writing about physiology and the design of the human body and how it mirrors our spiritual lives. i'm sure you're familiar with his writings... in his and his wife's work with leprosy patients, the fact that disfiguration and loss of limbs intrigued him --intrigued him to find out more of what contributes to this. essentially what happens is that patients with leprosy (and poorly controlled diabetes for that matter) develop peripheral sensory neuropathy (lose sensation of touch, pain) and tend to loose feet and hands simply because they've become grossly infected --because in doing the normal activities without pain sensation --it's easy for small injuries to become infected, and if left chronically unattended lead to amputation.
so, in this analogy, pain is a gift --a warning to take note, and its loss is a detriment and a danger for further, more catastrophic loss. interestingly, when those disease processes occur (namely leprosy and diabetes), it becomes vitally important for these patients to intentionally check their feet daily for any sign of injuries, cuts, etc, and if not, infection spreads.
Pain receptors and pain, in general is hard to understand as a gift, but when one ponders what life would be like without it, one can better appreciate the need for it.
on a spiritual level, we may not quite understand why God allows us to go through a particularly painful time --whether it be a result of consequences to our sin, as a precursor to get our attention that we're headed down the wrong direction being selfish and it's meant to stop us before infection and sin spread to devastating levels. or perhaps, pain comes in a confusing shroud of senseless loss, cancer, or the reality we live in a godless world. i can't help but remember the phrase scott used --that Jesus is both a Man of Sorrows and Joy. it was not without extreme anguish Christ took our sin and endured such immeasurable pain on the cross. coming to the true realization of this only comes when one's been deep in sorrow, broken-hearted, in pain. knowing God is both sovereign and good somehow gives reassurance that, as the Great Physician and Creator, He knows what He's doing --pain is both preventative and life-transforming if we choose to seek and find Jesus amidst it. Jesus is the Balm of Gilead who soothes broken, sin-sick souls. when one has surgery, there's always a scar left, and though that scar heals, it will always be a reminder of what was done --so too, do we bear the marks of Christ in our lives.

At 12/10/07 16:09, Blogger jeb said...

Below are a couple comments on suffering from noteable authors

A child like Mary Ann, she observed, is obviously grotesque, and in the modern world such a child is thought to ‘discredit the goodness of God.’ ….The modern unbeliever prides himself on his realism, his willingness to recognize suffering and to ponder the problems of evil directly. But in O’Conner’s estimation such an outlook is not realistic; it is naive, sentimental, and even dangerous. It is the believer, not the unbeliever, who is the realist. In a child like Mary Ann the believer sees the likeness of every human person-deformed, limited, imperfect. In human deformity the believer sees ‘the raw material of good.’ In human suffering the believer sees the grounds of our common humanity, recognizing that it is through suffering, above all, that human beings are stirred to the love of one another, and to the love of God, who showed his love for humanity through his willingness to suffer as one of us. - Paul Elie in speaking about the work and person of Flannery O'Conner

A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell, indifference, laziness, brutality, and genius. Yes even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.

The Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. And he cursed me with all the problems of raising him…. When he was four years old, I saw him reading a story from a book. And I was frightened. He did not read the story, he swallowed it, as one swallows food or water. There was no soul in my four-year-old son, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a soul. It was a story about a man who suffered much. And my son enjoyed the story, because when he finished it he realized for the first time what a memory he had. He looked at me proudly and told me back the story from memory, and I cried inside my heart. I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, ‘what have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!’

I hope for him to learn how much suffering there is in this world. It will redeem his soul. I taught him with silence. The heart speaks through silence. One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of pain. It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe. A leader especially must know of pain. He must know how to suffer for his people. He must carry their pain on his own shoulders. He must carry it always. He must grow old before his years. He must cry in his heart. Even when he dances and sings, he must cry for the sufferings of his people. 
How does one learn to want to take on another person’s suffering? -Chiam Potok in 'The Chosen'

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. - Hebrews 2:10

At 25/10/07 23:31, Anonymous Anonymous said...

as bono puts it "the only pain is to feel nothing at all"
if you feel no pain you are probably not alive. to feel no pain is to feel no love. i dont know why but they seem to go hand in hand.
i am not very old but i do understand that. I am sure your sermon is over by now, but i thought i would add my two cents.


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