For a while my son-in-law owned a trailer park in Florida. He said that inevitably each month at least one of his tenants would come in to pay off part of another’s rent for that month. The reason: “He’s short this month,” or “she needs some help.” People who work with the poor would say that the sense of community is their highest value. Contrast that with the highest value of the middle class—education. I think that we who are comfortable in our lives, who don’t need help to meet the rent payment or to pay their bills, have a lot to learn from the poor people’s sense of community. It’s a hugely mitigating force that counterbalances the suffering that comes along with life.
I believe that we all suffer no matter our income level, no matter our education, our jobs; we all suffer loss and pain: from hunger, from loss, from illness or incapacity, from abuse, from toxic people or systems in which we live, from facing death of a loved one or ourselves. Suffering can be caused by other people or a natural disaster or, sometimes, even ourselves. It is how we deal with this pain that defines who we are.
An important issue in suffering is this: where does God fit into the equation? It took me a long time to accept that God was not going to wave his magic wand and take away my suffering and everyone else’s, too. My attitude had been that if God is all-powerful he should fix all these things in the world that bring suffering, so that I wouldn’t have to suffer. Or to put it another way: I could live in peace if first there were peace throughout the world. Selfish, wasn’t it? I don’t think I’m alone in wishing away any suffering that comes my way.
We lift up many prayers to God to end our suffering and sometimes suffer even more by what we perceive as God not answering our prayers. I believe that God answers every prayer of ours, but often in ways that are unrecognizable as answers to our very specific prayers. We hold on to the one outcome we want. I certainly did when my husband’s cancer returned and he was back in the hospital thirteen years ago. I was exhausted by what was going on. I wanted him to be well and whole, not sick again. I prayed that he would totally recover, but the answer that God sent me was this: Hold all possible outcomes equally.
My desires weren’t what God was fulfilling, but he was leading me into a whole new way of looking at life and particularly at my husband’s life. As soon as I was able to hold all outcomes equally, my energy returned and I was experiencing joy and sorrow fully at the same time. Then God sent me a gift of faith that was so wide and deep that I felt like the house built on rock. Nothing, NOTHING could move me off that rock.
My husband did die some weeks later, but I was totally supported throughout that period. I continued to hold all outcomes equally and to count on my faith and God’s presence. Even as it was clear that Hank would die, I was saying to myself. His dying isn’t the only outcome possible. And so I didn’t cling to his living.
You could say that God didn’t answer my prayer, but to me he not only answered it, he made my life livable during this passage. He stayed with me. He gave me much more faith than I had ever had and it is still with me today. His answer was so much greater than what I had asked and served me so much better than insuring that my husband lived out a natural lifetime. God answers all our prayers, but be ready for something wonderful or better or different than what you asked for.
Back to suffering: It has two layers. The first, very real, is what has happened or is about to happen—a death of a loved one, an awful illness, a job loss, damage from a natural disaster, ongoing abuse, continuing poverty and more—and our reactions of grief, denial and all the other normal stages of reeling and then righting ourselves after a big loss. These events are real and tangible and need to be acknowledged and mourned and recovered from.
The suffering that we all encounter is like being in a crucible where all the dross, the unnecessary things are burned off, leaving the purest of the pure. A lot of our assumptions about life get changed in our suffering. Expectations get adjusted to more realistic ones. Our own preferences just don’t seem to matter as we learn to yield to the reality before us. Suffering is the great change agent in the world—we become more real, we become more compassionate with others. We learn what really matters in this life.
The second layer of suffering is what we add onto the very real suffering. Our egos need to call attention to our suffering and to make it worse. We prolong, intensify, we call attention to ourselves and what we are going through, we make it worse by exaggerating it. We’re “suffering” on top of the normal suffering. We insist “It’s not fair!” “This is too much to take!” and we moan on and on about “Why me?” The more we push away the suffering, the more power we give it. We cling to it, make it a part of our identity. “Look at what I’ve had to go through!”
We are not special or singled out because we have suffered. The longer we cling to these objections, the harder it is to heal and to move on into the present. We get stuck in the past, still objecting to it.
To sum up what I’ve tried to say about suffering, let me repeat these points: 1) suffering happens to everyone; 2) God is with us in our suffering, supporting us, pointing out ways to deal with it, giving us what we need; 3)we could emulate the poorer classes in our country and form communities to support each other as we go through these passages; and 4)we make our suffering harder to bear by resisting it or making it worse than it actually is.
I’ve come to believe that Jesus’ teachings about feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and those in prison, inviting in the stranger, clothing the naked are too narrowly interpreted. I think what Jesus is calling us to is more than meeting the physical needs of people. Jesus repeated these exhortations several times in Matthew’s Gospel. He is calling us to compassion, to building friendships, to being real, not to just hand out food in a food line or give a drink to someone who is thirsty. He means for us to make friends of those we help, to get to know each other well enough so that you might understand why they are where they are and so that the other can get to know you, too. This would be a natural exchange among people rather than one-sided giving. And we would be wholly present to each person.
Jesus is asking to us go beyond feeding or clothing someone to opening our arms and hearts to others, to learn how to enjoy them and their stories, to find out how they got the way they are. This is true compassion –where we are engaged in our hearts, our minds, our souls and bodies. Too often we’ve shown up, but were not present to another. We’ve helped, but not really cared for the one we helped. How many times have I missed an opportunity to show that s/he was important to me and in God’s eyes as well. What a missed opportunity for both of us. I missed the chance to get to know another in other circumstances than my own. I missed the chance to learn from another person who has a different perspective. And I forgot to share love with another.
The one I was trying to help—s/he is left with food in their stomachs and their thirst slaked, but there was nothing for his or her soul. I did not acknowledge his/hers importance in God’s world. S/he was just one of the homeless for me. An anonymous man or woman. Oh, I smiled at him or her, but my smile was surface, not deep delight. I may have talked to him, but did I ask him how he was or how he came to be where he was?
You can see that I am deeply engaged in the writing of this blog. I feel convicted by what I’ve written, but I have learned something important too. It’s taken me several rewrites to get the message that the Lord wants me to write. Generally I do not have such difficulties. The edits are usually easy. Writing this one is challenging me in the same way I am challenging my readers. Please join me in setting an intention to be with the people I want to help, to give all of who I am not just to go through the motions. I think that all of us will learn so much, as the giver becomes the receiver and the receiver becomes the giver. This is how true community is built. How beautiful will that be! Doesn’t the phrase, a true community, describe the kingdom?
Questions to ponder over the week: Am I a I-love-them-but-don’t-have-to-like-them Christian? Or do I treat the people I try to help as true children of God? Do I seek to understand them, do I allow them to teach me? Am I really interested in all sorts of people or only my own kind?