As a kid I loved to watch the TV series Superman. I always felt a rush of adrenaline when Superman zipped into a telephone booth to change from mild mannered reporter Clark Kent into the Caped Crusader. I wished that I too could transform myself from a mere mortal into someone who was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”. Who wouldn’t? The reality is I’m not always in control or able to do the things I want to. It’s quite humbling. A prayer known as the Serenity Prayer goes this way: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” In my experience, fulfillment of this prayer is forged in the more demanding and difficult seasons of our lives.
Life brings us all to a place where we are extremely vulnerable. I remember being in the nursing home with my father in the days before he died. My father had worked in management for Ontario Hydro. He had been an Elder in the Church. He was a tall, attractive man with an authoritative air. In the last couple years of his life, I watched all of his power slowly slip away. He was frustrated, angry and depressed by his grief and his helplessness. When I went into the nursing home, I saw a very thin, weak, man worn out in body and spirit, curled up in his bed. When my brother, sister and I were kids, my Dad owned a Volkswagen Beetle and if we got out of hand in the car, his arm would fly out behind him and smack our heads in consecutive order – I’m not sure how he did that but it was the days before head rests. As he lay dying in that bed, he didn’t have the strength to reach out to get a swab for his mouth. Life has a way of humbling us, doesn’t it?
John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans”. It’s our expectation that life should be good. We have a sense of entitlement – God should give us everything we want and an easy road to boot. So when life is going well and we’re cruising along, we don’t give a lot of thought to God. Most people don’t even pause to give thanks to God that life is going well. When life pleases us, even those who acknowledge God have a tendency to let God do his thing, not out of respect for God’s freedom to do so, but because we’re busy pursuing our own goals and laying out our own plans. Bad things that unravel our lives are never in our plans. Setbacks and difficulties, devastating loss and grief always catch us up short and remind us there are many “things we cannot change”. When we become vulnerable in the face of those things, it’s not often with serenity. All of a sudden we get up close and personal with God in a real hurry. We wonder, “Does God really care for me? Does God even know what’s happening to me? I’ve prayed long and hard about this with all the faith that God could reasonably expect, and nothing’s changed. What is God up to? Is God punishing me?” Since this is often a time when we feel abandoned by God, we easily join in the Psalmist’s lament, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will this enemy triumph over me?”(Psalm 13: 1& 2) When life strips us of all the things we rely on, it seems that God is gone too. In those times, we recognize our “poverty of spirit”. We discover how much we need God. We come to realize God is all we’ve really got.
In the midst of our painful experiences we often feel “frozen”. We don’t know what to do or there is nothing we can do. It’s struggle to get out of bed, let alone move forward. On a spiritual level though, bad things have the power to move us. Sometimes this is a movement towards God but, if we’re too angry to admit our need, they can also push us away from God. Within our struggles there lies the potential to move toward God into deeper intimacy. When Job approached God he was looking for reasons for his suffering. “Give me a rationale God. Tell me what the goal of all of this is”. Instead of getting answers to such questions, Job ended up discovering something of the nature of God. We read, “I admit I once lived by rumours of you; now I have it all firsthand – from my own eyes and ears! I’m sorry – forgive me. I’ll never do that again, I promise” (vs. 5). His suffering provided Job with a closer, fresher perspective of God. Humbled by God’s grandeur he was consoled by God’s presence as God walked with him through his unbearable losses.
There is a big difference between going through a tough time without God and going through it with God. Sharing our suffering with another creates an enduring bond of love between us and them. One of the most moving places of suffering I’ve seen was Pearl Harbour. It’s a site thousands of people visit each year. When we arrived at the park, there was a light, curious atmosphere. It was fun to explore a submarine. There was lots of laughter and chatting with strangers. Then we were ushered into a theatre and shown a video of the young men who died in the very area we were sitting. They took us in a boat across the bay to a very simple structure built over the sunken remains of the battleship Arizona. In December of 1941, when the Japanese attacked this American military base, the ship’s ammunition hold took a direct hit and the huge explosion ripped the ship apart causing it to quickly sink. The majority of sailors on board either died in the explosion or drowned in the water. On the wall of that shrine are the names of over 1,000 men whose remains lurk within the rusting shell of the Arizona. In that room there was total silence. I wasn’t the only one with tears running down my face. There’s also a new wall being established. It will be the resting place for the cremains of ship mates who managed to escape death in the explosion and swim through the ship’s burning fuel to live another day. Upon dying, their wish was to be interred with their comrades who lie buried under the water with the Arizona. The profundity of that horrible event bonded these men forever. Travelling together with someone through the bad times forges deep, unexplainable bonds.
When God walks with us through our suffering an incredibly permanent and deeply rooted bond is formed. God may not give easy answers or quick exits from our situation but sharing the experience and the pain together with God gives us a sense of the depth of God’s love. Luke gives a brief account of Jesus as he entered into the suffering of a man who had edema or dropsy. His body was retaining an alarming and fatal amount of fluid. It was the Sabbath and the religious leaders were watching to see what Jesus would do. Jesus healed the man. Then he posed the question, “If one of you has a child or even an animal that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” Jesus had never met the sick man before but he valued him the way a farmer values his livestock. He showed him the love a parent has for their child. Luke doesn’t tell us how the healed man re-acted, he tells us something far more important – that Jesus risked his own security out of love for this stranger who was a valued and loved child of God. Out of that love, God in Christ, shared our suffering The prophet Isaiah described the Messiah like this, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted” (53:4). In Phillipians, Paul speaks of Jesus, “…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of slave, being born in human form … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross” (Phil 2:6-8). Christ shares our pain. He put himself at risk because we are beloved children of God. At no time is God’s love deeper than in the midst of suffering. In Christ’s suffering God reveals the incredible depth of his love for his children. In your suffering God pours out his love to you, his hurting child. God, in Christ, has shared our suffering and God continues to share our suffering; through this suffering we are brought into a deep and enduring bond of love with our God.
One of the ways we know the love and presence of God in the midst of our suffering is through the love we experience from our Christian brothers and sisters. I frequently hear people in our congregation tell of their most devastating times of suffering – death of a loved one, serious illness, divorce, loss of a job, depression, family conflicts, and a host of other soul crushing and fear inducing experiences. These stories often end in tears as people recount with gratitude the love and support they experienced from others in this room. Because suffering is a humbling force we often isolate ourselves from both God and others. Sometimes opening ourselves to the love and tenderness offered by others can push us over the edge – the flood gates open, we lose control, we become even more vulnerable and we feel embarrassed. Humiliated. The result is that we avoid those who would share their love and God’s love with us. Although suffering renders us powerless in many ways there are still some things within our influence – “things we can change”. It takes discernment to know what they are and courage to act on them. Moving towards God and opening ourselves to others are things we can change. Having this love and support doesn’t end our troubles or resolve our pain. Love though makes the pain bearable. It makes it “less horrible”. Love tells us that not only are we not forgotten and not only are we not alone, we are valued. We are precious. Love brings its own brand of soothing. Love heals.
Serenity comes in the midst of our afflictions as we lean on the love and grace of our Creator. The same Psalmist who wondered if God had forgotten him ended his psalm, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” As we share our suffering with the God who loves us and has suffered for us in Jesus Christ and as we experience that love through others, we learn that goodness is still alive and well and bad things, the most threatening events of life, cannot stop the good from touching us.