Pain that Leads to Life

by | Nov 18, 2018

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Mark 13:1-8    

Good morning, St. John’s! It’s wonderful to see good friends I’ve had the privilege of working alongside in my 7 years as bishop and to meet some of you for the first time. It’s a big day today: 21 people will be Confirmed or Received into the Episcopal Church at the 11:00 a.m. service, we’ll offer prayers of dedication for the renovated parish house. Please know how much I admire the wise-beyond-his-years leadership of your associate rector, Andy Olivo, the strong and steady hand of your interim rector, Bruce MacPherson, your gifted staff, committed and faithful lay leaders, and in particular, the vestry and rector search committee. I hold all of you in the highest esteem, you who are living, working, serving faithfully in the places to which you are called. I give thanks to God for all of you.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I hope that you have the opportunity to be with people you love, and in their presence consider the many blessings of your life. It’s always a good practice to take stock of our lives through the lens of gratitude. Practicing gratitude trains our eyes, ears and hearts to receive the gifts of each day and each year that we might otherwise miss. What has happened since last Thanksgiving for which you are truly grateful?

This time last year, I was invited to preach the Thanksgiving homily for the girls at National Cathedral School. I invited them to take up a gratitude experiment (and we wouldn’t tell the St. Albans boys). For the next 30 days, I suggested to them, at the end of each day write down 3 things from the day for which they were grateful. They didn’t have to pretend that they were grateful for things they weren’t, I told them. But even on the hardest days, see if there isn’t something for which to give thanks. At the end of the 30 days, let’s talk about what you’ve learned.

Right before Christmas break, the entire 4th grade class wrote me letters reporting on their experience. Here is a sample of what I received:

  • I learned that I had more than I thought.

  • I don’t think I will ever forget when you told us that good things come out of challenges; it’s not wonderful, but good.

  • I was really inspired to be more grateful, and it worked. I found myself less worried.

  • I learned that even among hard times you should try to find joy.

You might consider such a gratitude discipline in your household and reflect on what you learn.

Yet the past year, like any year, surely brought some manner of hardship and suffering, to which we are not immune, and for which we need not pretend to be grateful. For some, the hardships have been acute. Indeed, some things that can and do happen in a human life are so searing we never fully recover. If this has been your experience in the past year, or that of someone close to you, I offer my deepest condolence for your loss and pray that you are surrounded by tenderness.

I’ve just finished reading the extraordinary memoir of Dr. Elaine Pagels, whom you may know as the author of some of the most influential, and controversial, books on the history of religion in past 25 years. Among them: The Gnostic Gospels; Adam, Eve, and the Serpent; The Origins of Satan; and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. She is one of my heroes, and thus when I saw that she had at last written a memoir, which she entitled, Why Religion?, I dropped everything to read it. In it, she writes for the first time about her personal suffering, an extended season of grief brought on by the death of her 5 year-old from a rare heart disease followed within a year of the accidental death of her husband.

In that devastating time, Pagels was overwhelmed not only by grief, but also with guilt, as if she were somehow responsible for their deaths. “Shaken by emotional storms,” she writes, “I realized that choosing to feel guilt, however painful, seemed to offer reassurance that such events did not happen at random. . . If guilt is the price we pay for the illusion that we have some control over nature, many of us are willing to pay it. I was. To release the weight of guilt, I had to let go of whatever illusion of control it pretended to offer, and acknowledge that pain and death are as natural as birth, woven inseparably into our human nature.” (Elaine Pagels, Why Religion: A Personal Story (HarperCollins, 2018).)

Let me say that again: Pain and death are as natural as birth, woven inseparably into our human nature.

The gospel text for this morning comes from a part of Jesus’ ministry when he becomes sober, even grim, about prospects for the future—not exactly a place to turn for gratitude or consolation. It’s a foreboding word he speaks to us about buildings falling, wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes and famines, a biblical tour of all the terrible things than can happen and do happen and are, in fact, happening in our world.

“Why do disasters still shock and surprise us?” Pagels asks, ever the scholar, even as she plumbs her own pain. She points out that our Judeo-Christian worldview is rooted in a vision of God who is all good, and who created, as stated in the Book of Genesis, “a very good world.” If so, what happened to this good world? “While the Buddha declared as his first noble truth that ‘all life is suffering’,” she writes, “Jewish and Christian theologians, on the contrary speak of ‘the problem of suffering’ as if suffering and death were not intrinsic elements of nature but alien intruders on an originally perfect creation.”

That insight alone made me wonder how much our response to our suffering determines what happens next, which is another way of asking what we are to do with the pain of loss. There’s little to be gained by running from it, though we can’t be blamed for trying. If we aren’t experiencing suffering ourselves, our understandable tendency is to imagine that we are somehow immune, until that bubble bursts. Sometimes the pain is so great that we are completely done in, at least for a time. But what happens when we realize that we’re still here, still alive, at least for now? How can we dare to breathe deeply again, accept what we cannot change, and learn what it has to teach us?

Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist writer whose books are worth having around you for the titles alone. Among my favorites: When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, When Pain is the Doorway, and The Wisdom of No Escape.

“There’s a common misunderstanding among all human beings,” Chödrön writes in The Wisdom of No Escape:

that the best way to live is to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. But a much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we’re committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.” (Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape (Boston: Shambhala, 2001).)

In The Places That Scare You , Chödrön writes:

There is only one approach to suffering of lasting benefit, and that approach involves moving toward painful situations, to the best of our ability, with friendliness and curiosity, relaxing into the essential groundlessness of our situation. There, in the midst of chaos, we can discover the truth and love that are indestructible. (Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You (Boston: Shambhala, 2002).)

Jesus, sounding very Buddha-like himself, at the end of the passage we have before us, took this line of thinking one step further: “In suffering, you will experience the beginnings of birth pangs.”

Birth pangs as a metaphor for suffering? Now that’s something that women who have given birth can speak about with some authority.

The first birth pangs, as any one of us will tell you, are meant to get your attention. You don’t do anything with those first pangs—the baby is a long time coming. When the first pangs come, about the only thing you can do is pay attention, practice breathing, and wait for the next one, which you know will be more painful than the first.

As it turns out, paying attention requires all your energy. There is no running away. Breathing—something we take for granted most of the time—becomes essential. So does getting ready. Location matters. Who is with you matters. You don’t need a lot of the stuff we normally clutter our lives with, but you need a few essentials, and a good back up plan.

The message of this sermon is this: When pain and suffering comes, as they will, allow the full range of emotions to wash over you. When the sky comes crashing down and you have no choice but to face how scared, sad or angry you feel, you needn’t pretend that it isn’t a catastrophe. But, in time, should a doorway open for you, remember Jesus’ words about birth pangs, and about life after death. Because if you’re open to such a possibility and paying attention to the pain with as much curiosity as you can muster, you’ll be far more likely to receive what it can teach you and embrace the life that awaits on the other side.

My sense is that in unsettled times, be they personal, for us as a community, or for all of us as a nation and a species, we are always tempted to avoid the real suffering we must live through by hanging onto to other forms of suffering that are not, in the end, redemptive. Jesus speaks words of warning about “false messiahs.” I think his words can also apply to what might be “false suffering,” suffering that is real, but leads us nowhere. Guilt can be a form of false suffering. So can the many treadmills of anxiety that we freely climb on, spinning us round and round, when the real task before us is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and see what lies on the other side.

A few years ago I attended a workshop with the wonderful Benedictine nun Joan Chittister. She spoke to us to of God, not as One who does things for us or to us, but instead as the One who walks with us, as an encouraging, beckoning presence. God is not a vending machine, she said, or a “Gotcha God,” waiting for us to fall short in order to punish us. God is the One who is always at our side.

One woman raised her hand to ask the question that we all ask at one time or another: “But how can we believe in such a God when there is so much suffering?” Joan looked straight at her with the deepest compassion and responded, “My dear, suffering is life. It’s simply life, the cost of life. It isn’t God’s fault. It isn’t your fault. It’s life. And life, while the greatest of gifts, can be hard. It can break our hearts, and often does. But my dear, God is with you. God is for you. God is your best friend. Never forget that.”

I leave you this day with what I hear in Jesus’ difficult words to us, words we may wish were not part of our Bibles, but in the end thank God that they are: be of good courage in the harder times. We never know when we might be called upon to do the hardest thing, what we fear most, or what catches us by surprise. But we can prepare for those times by how we live now—what we listen for, how we speak to one another and pay attention to the presence of God.

I don’t know that we ever become grateful for the hard things that happen to us, but I do know the gratitude for having come through them, gratitude, sometimes, for the person we become as a result of our hardship, gratitude that out of death something new can be born.

And so, St. John’s, Lafayette Square, continue being the church—the community—where you and others can grow in faith and love, give voice to your greatest aspirations; where you come to grieve and celebrate, and gather around the sacred stories and teachings of the Christian life. Together you can choose to face the realities of life with an open heart and a willingness to trust that no matter what happens, God is with you. Whatever hardship you are facing now, this is, Jesus says, but the beginning of the birth pangs. His life, death, and resurrection, his abiding presence with us, is God’s response to our suffering, with the most powerful promise of all: that there is life on the other side. For that, may we all give thanks.