by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
19 March 2023
Titling a sermon “Suffering” doesn’t exact spark excitement and anticipation, I’m sure. Nor was I prescient in knowing that winter would return this weekend. Rather, suffering is one of the six rhythms of the Spirit that we are exploring this Lent, ways we connect with God spiritually.
Of course, consoling suffering people is a significant part of pastoral care. Of what I and Jim and Katie do every week. When people are anxious, uncertain, afraid, worried, troubled, sad, in pain, they reach out to talk, to vent, sometimes to rage, sometimes to problem-solve, sometimes just to be heard.
Like, the person who had an accident, and the recovery is taking so much longer than expected, and they miss their active life.
The person going into surgery frightened about possible scenarios that would radically alter their happiness.
The person still trying to recover from all the impacts of the pandemic isolation on their mental, emotional, and social well-being.
Of course, sometimes the concern is also directed to issues of the what’s going on in the wider world.
The expecting mother deeply troubled by what it means to bring a child into the world at this time.
The grandfather concerned about his children who he says seem to take only an apocalyptic view on things anymore.
The mom deeply worried about her trans daughter amidst all the anti-trans activities being taken by our and other state legislatures. Worried not only for her daughter but all trans people.
In moments of suffering, we seek consolation. But we also search for wisdom--wisdom for how to live through these life circumstances, how to cope with a world that isn’t what we expected and is often out of our control.
This Lent we are exploring the Words of Wisdom, the parts of the Bible where we receive practical advice on how to live, where God speaks to us about our daily, ordinary lives. Where we are reminded that God is present with us, helping us and guiding us.
Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw describes six rhythms of life in the spirit that we’ve been exploring. And one of those is suffering. In suffering we can become attuned to God and to one another. We can sense a connection between our own suffering and the sufferings of Christ. We can feel God present with us in our suffering, sharing in it, comforting and consoling us, and working for our deliverance and healing.
Last May, as I was preparing for my sabbatical, the first book I read was Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times. After two really stressful years personally and professionally, I was looking forward to the sabbatical as a chance to take a break, to rest, to recharge. And Ignatieff’s book seemed a good way to transition from the stress to the break.
Because we are living in difficult times, Ignatieff wants us to draw upon the received wisdom of humanity and the ways that others before us dealt with their difficulties and found resilience and solace. So, the first place he goes is to the Book of Job. This ancient Hebrew text is the source of much wisdom on how we can respond to our suffering.
What Michael Ignatieff admires in Job is that Job demanded to be heard. He insisted on the validation of his own experience. This is an important lesson for us to learn. So often we’ve been trained to minimize our hurt, to swallow our feelings, to avoid dealing directly with them. This we know is unhealthy and can cause lasting damage. A key first step to growth and healing is to take a lesson from Job and share our hurt and insist on its being seen and heard.
Job also refused to accept false consolation, even from the friends who showed up with the intention of trying to comfort him. Their words were not comforting, not validating. Job refused their advice and instead insisted that his suffering mattered. He demanded that God respond. Ignatieff writes, “His very despair is a way of insisting, despite everything, on his own importance in the ultimate scheme of things.”
Of course, even when Job does finally hear from God and the end of the book, he never truly receives the explanations and the answers that he wants. But, even then, Job refuses to resign himself to his suffering.
Here is how Ignatieff summarizes the story of Job and the lessons we can take from him:
Job’s story tells us we are fated to endure sorrow and suffering that have no apparent meaning, moments when existence is a torment, when we know what it is to be truly inconsolable. But like Job, we must learn to endure, we must hold on to the truth of what we have lived and refuse false consolations . . . We should . . . struggle as best we can to understand the meaning of our lives.
He then adds: “to find the answer that is true for us we will have to be as courageous as the man in rags who dared raise his fist to the sky.”
This week I read the book Imaginable by the futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, whose great book Reality is Broken I had read about a decade ago. This latest books comes after the global pandemic and after we have all lived through situations we never imagined that we would. In order for us to become more resilient and better able to manage such scenarios, McGonigal wants us to begin actively imagining various future scenarios and what we might do and think and feel in those situations. She sights all sorts of scientific evidence for how engaging in such forward-thinking has positive mental and emotional benefits.
One of the ideas she suggested at the start of the book, and which I did, was to open up the digital calendar on your phone, go to the same date some years in the future—I chose to go a full ten years, the furthest out she said you might go, but maybe one or three or five years works for you. And then, to schedule one thing you want to do that day. What I decided to schedule in my 2033 calendar was to plan a sixtieth birthday trip to New Zealand. And, truly, the very act of thinking about what I might do a decade from now and then imagining the trip, brought a smile to my face and a lightness to my being.
McGonigal writes that such future-oriented practices cultivate urgent optimism. And optimism that is realistic about the challenges we face, but that also sees them as opportunities. She writes, “Coming out of the darkness of the pandemic, we have the chance to grow into something new together. But first, we have to grapple with the truth of what we’ve been through.”
She calls this post-traumatic growth. It’s the sort of transformational change that might occur when a trauma opens up new possibilities through what had previously been unthinkable challenges. She writes:
Post-traumatic growth can result in a better understanding of our own strengths, an openness to new possibilities and opportunities, an increase sense of connection with others who suffer, the courage to make dramatic changes in our lives that better reflect our hopes and dreams, and a newfound desire to serve a cause bigger than ourselves.
And I think all of us have seen such changes in people we know. People relocating, changing jobs and careers, taking up new habits and routines, spending more time with family and friends or on self-care, radically altering what they give their time and resources too.
McGonigal believes that “the next decade will be the most significant opportunity most of us have in our lifetimes to create long-lasting positive change in society.”
Of course, a faithful life attuned to suffering must also turn its attention outward, beyond the needs of the self to the suffering of others and the wider world.
We respond to suffering by first grieving and lamenting our losses. We should then examine ourselves to see when we might bear some responsibility. And if we do, to make confession and seek reconciliation. Then to get busy working to right the wrongs we can. Working for healing and for justice.
Amy Plantinga Pauw points out that we can’t just sit around and wait for Easter to happen—we need to be actively involved in confronting the forces of suffering and death.
And so we organize and advocate and serve. We lobby and march and protest. We lead and influence and inspire.
Job insisted on being heard. He demanded respect. He wouldn’t resign himself to his situation. Job was courageous, and so must we be. If we are to be consoled. If we are to be resilient in the face of the world’s difficulties. If we are to live wisely. Then we must take these ancient and recent lessons and apply them to our own lives. When we do, we will be better attuned to God. That is the path to well-being, to flourishing.
God’s wisdom isn’t to passively submit to fate. No, God’s wisdom is to lament, grieve, console, then to heal, resist, and work to make the world better so that we all suffer less.