Saturday, May 9, 2009

Pain

My second talk at the retreat:

I wasn’t sure what I was going to speak on this morning but while we were praying for ___ and ___ last night, it came to me: PAIN! No one likes pain and yet so much of it comes into our lives. What should we do? It’s something I’ve wrestled with a lot as I’ve faced one pain after another. Barbara Johnson titled one of her books Pack up Your Gloomees in a Great Big Box, then sit on the lid and laugh! Pain is inevitable. We can’t avoid it.

I love the book of First Peter because of the hope it gives me. Perhaps more than most books of the Bible, this letter talks a lot about suffering.

1 Peter 1:6-7 NIV
...now, for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

1 Peter 2:19-23 NIV
...it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
I have created a little prayer room in my basement. In it I have objects and pictures of things that remind me of what God has done in my life. My normal practice is to use each symbol as a prompt for prayer--sometimes a prayer of thankfulness, sometimes a prayer for help. But one morning I wasn't doing very well when I went to my prayer room to pray.

I opened my alabaster box and anointed myself with spikenard. "God, sometimes I don't want to be devoted to You. I don't want to listen to you or do your will."

I put my hand on the coins. "Sometimes I'm not grateful for Your provision."

I picked up the framed, stamp-sized photo of the Aurora Borealis. "Sometimes You seem so far away and I don't want to give you any reason to rejoice over me."

I put my hand on the Book of Common Prayer. "Sometimes it feels like prayer is meaningless."

I touched the bulldozer with the "boulders" in front of it. "Sometimes the boulders are overwhelming, God, and there's no way to remove them."

I handled the spike. "What was the point of taking my sins?"

I looked at the inkwell with the quill. "God, even my voice has been taken from me."

I knelt before the candle. "You want me to be a light to the world but all I see is a dark cloud."

I looked at the salt cellar. "And all I provide is a bad taste in people's mouths."

I picked up the crown of thorns. "My whole being seems wrapped up in thorns, God."

I sat in my rocker where I could view the symbols of God's work in my life, feeling nothing good or redemptive, and I sang:
When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll.
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
'It is well, it is well with my soul.'
A few years ago, I had a routine for the summer days, part of which was stopping at the Assiniboine Park, finding a spot of beauty, sitting in my mini-van with the windows open and, day by day, making my way through a Bible study on the life of David. One particular day, after my study, I sat in quiet contemplation asking God to show me what he wanted me to see, to tell me what he wanted me to hear but at first there was nothing.

I usually spend times of contemplative prayer with my eyes closed but I was surrounded by such beauty of nature I decided to keep them open. It was the branch of a tree that caught my attention. Somehow I knew there was something caught in the lacing of leaves that held God's message for me. I didn't see it at first and so I waited. Aren't we told to wait on the Lord?

I began to hum the song:
In Your time
In Your time
You make all things beautiful
In Your time

Lord please show me every day
As You're teaching me Your way
And I'll do just what You say
In Your time
and I got to thinking. Time! Waiting takes time!

I was parked on Formal Garden Way which is shaded by an arching row of elm trees on either side. Assiniboine Park was celebrating its 100th anniversary that year and I wondered what it was like those first years. Was it barren prairie dotted with seedling trees? What drew people to the park then? Was there shade? It certainly wasn't lush with the foliage we now have. The park we enjoy today is the product of waiting--waiting more than a hundred years for infant trees to mature into giants whose shadows provide welcome coolness for cyclists, skaters, strollers, me and the mosquitoes.

Waiting. How long am I willing to wait on God? Often when we’re suffering and in pain, the wait seems long.

You have all probably heard the phrase: "No man is an island, entire of itself," John Dunne wrote this startling truth a few hundred years ago. The end of that paragraph is not nearly as popular in our hedonistic, narcissistic society as those first few words.

The context is Dunne, lying in bed with what he thinks is the bubonic plague, thinking he's going to die and questioning God as to why this had befallen him so soon after accepting the very prestigious position of dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and thus able to do so much more for God. Why, God? he asks. When he hears the church bells announcing another death in the community, he thinks they are for him.

Instead, they're for his neighbour, but that gives him a revelation: The neighbour's death is as much a part of Dunne as of the neighbour himself because we are all connected. When one suffers, we all suffer--something Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 12:26:
"If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it." (NIV)
Dunne goes on to talk about how this idea of another man’s sorrow being ours as well is not asking for or begging for misery and yet he says...
...it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.*
Affliction, suffering, misery a treasure? Not a popular concept and yet so very true--if we allow it and embrace it, if we choose to seek God in the midst of it.

What has your attitude been toward pain and suffering?


*as quoted in Connecting with God: A Spiritual Formation Guide by Renovaré

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