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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Walking with the suffering: some thoughts along the way

We face death and heartache every day.  Just for this week:  people we loved had surgery, went to funerals, found out about unexpected pregnancies and losses, faced false accusations.  My mom lost her best friend suddenly. A 35-year-old Serge worker (not in our Area) collapsed with a cardiac arrest and is still semi-conscious in an ICU in a foreign country where his wife and young children cling to hope.  A 39-year-old worker with another organization with whom our teams in Nairobi partner closely died in a paragliding accident in the Rift Valley; our colleague George led her memorial service yesterday even as his own family grieved.  Emergency trips to the USA for a stage-four cancer diagnosis in a dad, a funeral for a grandmother, a sickness in a child.  Another missionary doctor family (not Serge) left the field abruptly when their young daughter's abdominal pain turned out to be a widespread malignant tumor.  My intern yesterday felt ready to give up, he's exhausted and had had two babies die one after the other in the afternoon.  Our former Bundi team leader Travis heads for yet more invasive tests to enter an experimental trial for the metastatic colon cancer he's been fighting for years.   We sat with a hurting missionary whose deep personal pain just did not make sense to her.  And none of those stories are more than a few days old.

So the op-ed piece I read yesterday, written by Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler, caught my eye.  She writes from the place of suffering to talk about how people respond.  Her words are well worth reading as she grapples with the false prosperity-Gospel so popular in America and Kenya.  Here is a summary with our own thoughts included.

Don't minimize; Do acknowledge.  Cancer and grief and betrayal and loss feel so overwhelming, sometimes I know our first reaction is to cut the problem down to a manageable size.  Maybe we compare--sorry you miscarried in the first month but at least you didn't bury a baby after going through 9 months of gestation and a full labor and delivery.  That kind of thing.  We even do it in our own minds, trying to convince ourselves that we should't feel sorry because others have it much worse.  How can I complain that I miss my kids when I saw 3 out of 4 at Christmas and my colleague hasn't spent Christmas with his kids in 8 years?  So the first way to be helpful to others and ourselves comes right out of the Psalms--state the problem, cry out, admit the hurt, see the pain.  List the losses.

Don't build a box; Do embrace mystery.  The second response we often have to overwhelming sorrow is to try and get control. Develop an explanation.  This happened because that person didn't wear a helmet or get a vaccine or spend enough time with their kid.  That happened to them but I'm not going to let it come near me.  We build a box of logic, of cause-and-effect, of theological justification.  The entire book of Job pretty much consists of his so-called friends probing to find out what he did wrong to deserve such tragedy.  Or the people who bring the blind man to Jesus and ask, who sinned, him or his parents?  Over and over, God busts our boxes.  Job was more righteous than all around him, and God never actually explains Job's suffering.  We read some of chapter 40 in worship this morning.  God's only answer was:  would you condemn me that you may be justified?  Look what I made.  In other words, we have to embrace the mystery that suffering and blessing both come into our lives unexpectedly, that these are ways God disrupts our comfortable limiting explanations and reminds us that God is God and we are not.  Jesus answered the blind man's friends by saying, this happened to reveal the glory of God.  We pray honestly but we embrace the mystery that God's ways of working may not make sense to us.  Ever, or at least in this world.

Don't hide; Do practice presence.  It's hard to be with suffering people.  I lose multiple patients a week.  When it happens in front of my face, when the child is in my hands, when I hear the mother's wails, it hits me a lot harder than when the intern calls after it's all over.  Sometimes suffering feels contagious.  Sometimes we just don't know what to say. But the one thing some of Job's friends got right, like the women at the cross, was to just sit and mourn with him.  To be present carries great power.

Don't give up; Do point to truth and hope.  Related to hiding, as cancer or broken relationships or disabilities drag on, it becomes harder to hang in there with the sufferer.  And it's hard to speak the truth in love without sounding like we are minimizing or explaining away.  That's why this one has to come last, after naming losses, embracing mystery, practicing presence.  Only then are we ready to point towards redemption.  We do have some truth that we can share.  The arc of God's story stretches out of view, but we've been given some glimpses of the ending, and it is good.  Love is stronger than death.  God is working in all circumstances.  Nothing can separate us from God's love.  None of those statement imply that one must muster up positive prayers to generate the outcome they wish for.   But all of those statements provide a bedrock and a beacon to walk through the next day, and the next.  When we are suffering, we need to lean on truth and mercy, and sometimes we need others to remind us of those things.

Thanks Kate, and Travis and Amy, and parents of Kim, and many other saints, for bearing witness along your stony paths.  We need your voices.  Help us to listen, show us how to bear the cross, and lead us to resurrection.


Jill said...

Your distillation of the op-ed is amazing. Which makes me wonder if you've made strides in writing your own story. Didn't you sift through journals thinking of doing that while in Colorado a few years ago? I'd read it!! Always praying for you!

The Bergs said...

Goodness, this spoke hope and encouragement to me. Thanks, J.