"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Gospel of Pain

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The Gospel of Pain
Good Friday meditation, April 2015, St John the Evangelist Edmonton

Be present, with us here, merciful God, and protect us through the physical, emotional and spiritual trials of our lives. Be our sure strength and defence. That we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may repose upon your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

My story has to do with following Jesus through 16 years of chronic pain, and how that has informed my faith through some dangerous ideas: holding fast, learning obedience, being tested, finding grace. These are dangerous ideas because they challenge our first-world culture head-on. If you need something in our world, you simply head out and buy it. If something breaks, you throw it out and replace it. If you are ill, you turn to medicine to provide you with the proper pill or procedure to restore you to health. But what if that doesn’t work? What if doctor eventually says, as mine has, we’ve got no idea…or the best advice ever, you had better just accept this and learn to live with it. So here’s my story of learning to live with it.

This story all began with a fall from a chair while camping. That was followed by a motor vehicle accident that left me with a badly blown apart lumbar disc and a compressed nerve bundle, permanent nerve damage and chronic pain. That injury ended my military career, as it rendered me as non-deployable and left me as a disabled veteran at the age of 34. This fit in well with God’s call as it permitted me to return to school for follow the path that led to ordained ministry. After 18 months in parish ministry in a descending spiral of pain and narcotics – I figured out that my injury had also ended my ability to perform full-time ministry. That was just about the point we joined the St John’s community in 2006.

It’s a tale that, if I was weighing things on a balance, seems to have far more loss than gain, but that’s fine in the following of Christ. If Paul can count his gain as loss for the sake of Christ, this allows me to count my losses as gains because of Christ. I can also stand with Job in saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I sometimes have to grit my teeth while saying that, but I still manage to get it out.

Holding Fast The idea of holding fast comes naturally to person who experiences chronic pain. You have little other choice but to hold fast. I’ve learned that the how and why of holding fast are what is key. Does my pain define who I am? No, because I am first and foremost a child of Christ, and that regeneration permits an identity that is transcendent and immanent…both here in the present, and reflecting a deeper spiritual reality that is beyond the physical me. As we Christians know, self-image is not grounded in my broken physical self, but rather in a radiant saviour who defines the totality of my being.

I work with case files from disabled workers every day, and it amazes me how often I see people that have been caught in a disabled self-image – once fit people transform into a person only defined by the disability or by the pain. This draws one deeper into the experience of unredeemed suffering, that is, suffering without any chance of meaning. I realized the other day that even the way we measure disability puts that spin on things: my whole-body impairment rating is 36 percent. What that means is my back injury corresponds to a healthy person who has lost 36 percent of whole-body function…and it struck me just a few weeks ago that this terminology essentially tells me that I’m only 2/3 of a whole person. In the case of some of the injured workers I meet, this self-image, that they are now only 2/3 or ½ of a full person, literally destroys them.

The Christian response to a broken body is captured beautifully by a band called the Mountain Goats in their song, Isaiah 45:23: “If my prayer goes unanswered that’s alright; If my path fills with darkness and there is no sign of light; Let me praise You for the good times, let me hold Your banner high; Until the hills are flattened and the rivers all run dry. And I won’t get better but someday I’ll be free; ‘Cause I am not this body that imprisons me.” I am not defined by this broken body that imprisons me, because my identity is in Christ, an identity that frees me today, and brings the promise of a healed tomorrow.

It is not hard for me to place these holding fast times in my life with that moment just before dawn in Gethsemane with Jesus (Luke 22:40-46). His companions receive the gift of sleep, but there is no sleep for Jesus as he wrestles with the coming trials. Jesus was alone in the pre-dawn and wracked with pain. In the end he is strengthened, not because the burden was removed, but because he becomes prepared to continue the journey, he becomes prepared to hold fast.

For those who sit in the dark of night, alone and suffering, it is some help to know that Jesus has been there too. What comes with the dawn may not be healing but the strength to see the journey through another day or another hour. But, even this consolation is limited for saying, “Jesus suffered too” is too distant from this present night alone in my world, in my time, to help.

What does speak to me is the reality that Christ rose from that garden, wracked with sorrow and pain and so terribly alone, and continued the race that had been set before him. This is not an easy message to accept, but it is one that I have learned through many hours flat on my back. Like much in our life, all profound learning and growth comes from those times.

Philippians 1

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

Being Tested We have this great text in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” When I heard that text before my injury, what I really heard was something like this: ‘Come to me all you weary people, and I will remove your burdens and let you rest.”

That’s not being true to the text, and I realize now that there is nothing in that text of comfort about Jesus removing our existing burdens…he says we will find rest for our souls, and asks us that we take on the additional, albeit light, burden of his yoke. While the burden may be light, this says nothing about the suffering being removed (Kierkegaard). Presumably afterwards we continue our weary journey, with our previous burden, now lightened by the yoke of Christ. I still hear this as a text of great comfort, but because it acknowledges that sometimes our call in this life is to continue to journey and suffer. Part of that journey is the testing that is given to us, to shape us for what comes next.

So through these last 16 years I’ve found myself sorely tested on more than one occasion. What is it that keeps me upright? Not fear nor stubbornness, but rather a certain knowledge of my infinite worth in God’s eyes. I read once of a young woman, who being told by her physician that she had incurable terminal cancer, said, “Thank God he has trusted me with this.” And I find my experience similar. Even while I’m tested, it is with the knowledge that my every breath serves a real, living God, and each test further shapes me toward my ultimate calling.

Luke 12

4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.[a] Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?[b] And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Finding Grace I don’t want to leave you with the impression that all this pain, exhaustion and nausea slides off my Teflon shell, far from it. I’ve spent many nights, like Jesus, weeping in the garden. I’m still grieving my past life, and only a few weeks ago was again railing against the unfairness of it…until I had a much-needed attitude adjustment courtesy of the Almighty. I’m also very aware that a large portion of my spiritual gifting from God exists only because of my disabilities.

The real question before any person experiencing testing or a chronic health condition, is what framework they use to understand the experience. The secular world treats suffering as something to be excised, like a tumour, so the individual can be returned to the state of bliss that is all the secular world values – individual happiness. That happiness is a smoke screen designed to obscure the reality that suffering is an intrinsic part of this broken physical reality, and it will come to claim all of us eventually. The secular world denies that, and places its hope in science and medicine to eventually remove all suffering – an idolatry at best.

What allows me to find grace in all this pain and loss, is the idea that my suffering has meaning, a meaning that transcends my individual experience, my very individual experience, and has a place within God’s good creation. Through Christ’s sacrifice, I can come to a place where I can see my suffering as redemptive, and God’s work to continue to shape me. I can see suffering as a conduit of God’s grace. I’m often unable to predict or to see how my pain has worked to bring God’s grace forward in the world, but I see enough hints to confirm for certain that God makes use of even my pain.

I was asked once by a psychologist how I seemed to be so at peace with the pain and the loss. She noted that compared to her other chronic pain clients, I was in a really good space. Now pragmatically I could say that I’m not sure what other choice I have…it’s not like anger and frustration are going to make things any better. The real reason, I told her, has to do with having a good theology of suffering. That is, I have a framework into which I can place my experience, and understand that my individual suffering is a part of a greater reality where that suffering is redeemed. I also know that nothing in the creation, good or bad, will fail to ultimately be turned to serve God’s will. This means that my suffering today has some place in God’s greater plan, even while suffering (and death) are by no means part of the world which God will ultimately bring about. It doesn’t mean I like it, but I can at least begin to understand it.

Knowing by faith that my suffering has a place in God’s world, rather than focussing me inwards on my pain, moves me to see that pain as my participation in suffering in a world full of sorrows. That reality lifts my experience of chronic pain from an experience of my life, internal and isolated, to a part of God’s very good creation. It is possible, through Christ, to see all suffering as ultimately redemptive. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said it this way, “If you will but let it, suffering is the guardian angel who keeps you from slipping out into the fragmentariness of the world; the fragmentariness that seeks to rip apart the soul.” My pain ultimately keeps my eyes focused solely on the cross of Christ.

This perspective allows me to hold fast, even in the very worst times, because I know how my pain fits into God’s greater plan. Even more, it allows me to understand how my suffering fits in Christ’s suffering. Christ’s coming to earth, to suffer and die, brings a new perspective on suffering in this physical reality. Christ’s suffering as one of us, raises all suffering to a level of nobility, as the Man of Sorrows calls all suffering into his being. That doesn’t redeem suffering, as this is not part of God’s plan, but it opens the possibility that suffering can be redemptive.

This also informs my perspective on everyone else I encounter, because now that I see myself as one of the hidden disabled, I realize that everyone else is too some degree in the same boat as I am. We all carry some hidden burdens that require God’s intervention to bring us healing and completion. That tells me that the real impact of ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ is not a caution against judging, but a caution against forgetting that all of God’s people are afflicted in some way.

2 Corinthians 12

5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,[a] a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Learning Obedience I spoke previously about grieving my old life, something I still do from time to time. It’s hard not to play the ‘what if’ game…what if this had not happened? This is really a path to despair and anger. Because I’m stuck inside the world, my first urge is to cry out from a place of personal loss – why, O Lord? Why me? And the answer I’ve received through these 16 years is the same one Paul received. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It also allows me to understand the elephant in the room – if you’re so darn holy, why is it that God has not healed you? I realize with Paul, having received the same sort of answer to that petition, that healing of a physical condition is not really the point. Healing of my need to have God do something physical in place of my acceptance that his grace is adequate for even me in disability, that is the real goal of healing. Do I really believe that God’s grace is adequate, even for me? And so, having been told like Paul that God’s grace is enough, I no longer lust after a physical miracle. I wonder sometimes…but always come back to resting in Him that offers me just what I need and when I need it. So, with Paul, I have to say I’m not happy with this particular thorn, but I do thank God for the continued lessons it provides. It also tells me that I need to stop assessing my value, my state, by the things I am lacking…rather I am to focus on the great bounty that I do have…a good job, a wonderful family, a super community of faith.

I’m also aware of the message of Jesus that comes through clearly in encounters like in Luke 5. After having been fishing all night long, Jesus asks Peter to cast the nets one more time. You can hear the exhaustion in Peter’s voice when he replies – we’ve been fishing all night, and have caught nothing. Why on earth would it be any different now? Yet he does as Jesus asks, and drops the nets again. The fact there are suddenly a bunch of fish is almost beside the point – because what I hear in that encounter is Simon Peter holding fast to Jesus, which means following even what seems like outrageous direction in obedience. So, I do my best to cast my nets where God directs, not because I’m expecting a mass of fish, but because I know that my role is to follow my Saviour…literally my only choice if I wish to survive.

Luke 5
4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

The trite answers, “Jesus suffered worse” or “Jesus wept” do not help. To know that my Saviour has suffered does little to remove the intense isolation of a chronic condition today. Like that useless adage, “What would Jesus do?” those thoughts are all in the past tense and of little use to me in my present pain. My solace comes only from the immediate thought: Jesus is suffering with me now.

My hope rests in the gospel account of another chronic sufferer, Jesus. He left the garden with friends but was still very alone for His last hours on earth. Jesus rose into the glorious tomorrow through the crucifixion but still bore the marks of that torture on his body (John 20:27). Jesus came through the pain, not because he knew there was relief in sight but because he accepted what he was to be for the next hour.

The gospel shows us that great grace exists through just continuing the journey. For those with chronic health issues, God’s grace is sufficient to help place one foot in front of the other to struggle until the finish line of this race comes into sight. If continuing that race means sitting, alone, in the early morning dark only able to mouth the word ‘Alleluia’, than so be it. I know my Saviour sits with me and that is enough.

Oh Lord, not only do you know our sorrow better than do we ourselves, but you feel it, too. You understand the burden, the heavy grief that we bear. Make us humble, therefore, so that in our rebellion against life’s injustices we do not turn for comfort to those who are like wandering stars, or to those who are like the raging waves of the sea foaming out their own shame. You are our refuge and our strength, and there is none other. S. Kierkegaard

Musee des beaux arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Hebrews 4-5 14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. … 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

2 Corinthians 12 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,[a] a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.


Written by sameo416

April 3, 2015 at 11:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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