11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection November 24, 2019
"Pain is Part of Life" by: Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, November 17, I preached #4 (“Pain is Part of Life”) from The Five Things We Cannot Change (David Richo). Next Sunday, I’ll conclude this series of sermons. I’m placing much of last Sunday’s sermon in this week’s Advance.
Close to Christmas 1982, I flew back from some months on what would become my favorite island of Maui. I had gone there to write. I flew to Los Angeles to spend some time with the friars I had lived with during the summer of 1971, when I tried to help them make religious movies.
Unfortunately, my rental car was broken into and I was robbed of ten years of painstaking research, my plane tickets, some recently purchased Christmas presents, the manuscript for my first book, my typewriter (in the days before computers), assorted clothes and books. I was devastated. Fortunately, the day before I left Maui, I had Xeroxed a copy of my manuscript and mailed it to a friend of mine in Chicago. I’d never have been able to reproduce it.
I begin my preaching with this sad story not to make anyone feel sorry for me but to point out that we all suffer pain. We all suffer loss. We all get traumatized in life. The losses I’ve endured just in my 12 years as your pastor are a significant source of serious suffering.
This past Wednesday I attended our monthly luncheon for local clergy. There were only two of us who made the luncheon. The other clergy person had lost her husband just a few months before. It was a difficult lunch because her loss resonated with my own spousal loss.
Sisters and brothers, life is a mysterious mixture of well-being and woe. We face so much pain, so much sorrow, so much loss. It should be obvious that it’s a mistake to presume that the purpose of religion is to produce happiness. The purpose of religion is to construct meaning. Our suffering must have some purpose, some meaning. Purposeless suffering cannot be well nor long endured.
However, we must be careful not to glorify suffering. The truth - the truth - is that suffering breaks the heart of God. Suffering is not what God wishes for us.
Yet there’s an important dimension to suffering which I preached about two weeks ago. I mentioned my many years of training in Tae Kwon Do. In those long and painful years, I was continuously bruised and battered from the sparring which was a constant and necessary part of our training.
One my way to black belt, I came to understand, because of all the pain I endured, that I’d never wish to cause such pain in another. I knew intimately, deeply, the pain of being punched and kicked. I never wished to inflict such pain onto someone else. This is the deepest teaching coming from any long journey into the various levels of black belt martial arts.
We know from Scripture that God is with us in our suffering. But we must also state that God does not cause our suffering. God does not want us to suffer. Yet suffering is inescapable for all creatures and for all creation.
We can accept and endure suffering because our God accepts and endures suffering: the suffering of all creation! This is a great and indecipherable mystery. Yet we can still attempt to more fully understand what remains ultimately incomprehensible.
Our God, brothers and sisters, is the God of the Cross. Our God is the God of the Tomb of Christ. Our God is the God of the Empty Tomb of Christ.
Everything in the Bible must be seen through this lens for those of us who are Christian. All the Bible must be filtered through the life, death, and resurrected life of Jesus Christ. We rightly claim that Jesus is the human face of God-Among-Us.
If this is so, as we believe, then we must interpret all of the Bible through the Gospels. When we hear Jesus shout from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) we learn something important about who God is. God is not, cannot be, the terrible-tempered, vengeful, God portrayed in so many places in Scripture.
The simple truth is that not all Bible passages are as important as other Bible passages. Christians made a grievous mistake believing the Bible to be all of “one cloth.” The Gospels are the core passages for Christians. Everything else in the Bible must be seen through the Jesus-lens of the Gospels. Otherwise, we’re trapped in an endless and erroneous attempt to validate every word in the Bible.
We still scan the horizon for the coming completion of creation. This completion is symbolized in our preaching text from Revelation where the Temple is brought from heaven to earth, when God will live among us in a New Jerusalem. This is, of course, a symbolic attempt to understand what God has in mind for a completed creation, for a whole and healed cosmos. This is poetry, not something to be taken absolutely literally.
The Christian mystic Teresa of Avila wrote thusly: “When we accept what happens to us and make the best of it, we are praising God.” What a wise way to approach life and its many struggles, its many pains.
We’re called to stop blaming God for all the problems we face. God doesn’t cause our problems. God is with us in our problems. I’m going to start blaming our neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, for our problems; either that or the planet Neptune! I’m not sure which is to blame. Sisters and brothers, see the foolishness here?
I’d like to share an important quotation from the scientist and theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Dark and repulsive though it is, suffering has been revealed to us as a supremely active principle for the humanization and the divinization of the universe.” This quotation probably needs more than one reading!
Pain is not punishment. Pleasure is not reward. They are mixed together in the mystery of life. We’ll never understand why some things happen. It might be best to approach all things with what has been termed “a loving curiosity.”
We automatically try to come up with solutions when we’re presented with problems. Men do this more than women.
Richo presents four seasons for us humans. There is 1) the season of newness; 2) the season of fullness; 3) the season of harvesting and 4) the season of repose. We easily equate these seasons with the seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter. I believe I’m entering the season of repose.
Things will fall apart. This is a given. How do we live through all that we must endure? We all, at times, feel isolated and cut off. Sometimes all we can do is sit alone in the dark. I usually end my day by sitting in my new home office, looking out the windows across to the park, drinking decaf tea and pondering (which also includes praying).
Brothers and sisters, the bottom line is now and always will be: God is With Us. Let me share a quotation from The Dark Night of the Soul by the psychiatrist and spiritual writer Gerald May: “If there were such a thing as a divine suggestion box, I’d suggest that God make things easier. Or, if not easier, at least clearer.”
(From May) “It is usual for people to think of God as the Supreme Being, the Lord and Master of all Creation … who is in charge of everything. Such a God is separate from us, transcendent, above and beyond us, and capable of giving us good things and bad things. We naturally pray for the good things we want and for relief from the bad things we don’t want. And usually it doesn’t work. We don’t get all we want, and we get too much of what we don’t want. Logically then, that transcendent, omnipotent and separated God seems arbitrary at best, unloving at worse. But the contemplatives emphasize God’s immanence as well as transcendence. God is our center, they say, closer to us than we are to ourselves. We are immersed in God, and God is immersed in us.”
We’d do well to stop quoting Scripture passages at one another. We’d do well to stop telling people to “snap out of it.” Compassion, to which we’re all called by Christ, is not feeling sorry for someone. Compassion is when we accept the other as an equal and the other’s pain as something we’ve already experienced or may experience in the future.
Sisters and brothers, we live at the heart of a great but dark mystery, the mystery of God’s abundant, abiding love. I wish I could make it easier for us. Sometimes I wish I could be the kind of pastor who claims certainty about what God is doing. Such pastors have no doubts. They easily shout out their certainties every Sunday morning. It would be easier being one of them.
Being one of them would mean I wouldn’t have to pay the necessary price for my uncertainty, the necessary price for claiming all is mystery. My life would be easier and less painful. Your life, as the members and friends of this church, would be easier and less painful.
But I can’t do it! I can’t do it because the God who came to my wounded 12-year-old heart early Christmas morning in 1959 won’t let me. The God I’ve come to know in my studies and in my searching won’t let me.
I wish it were easier. I wish I could throw out Bible quotes as if they solved every dilemma, as if they answered every problem. But I can’t do that. I’m sorry but God won’t let me. Pious platitudes don’t work for me.
Yet I find comfort and consolation in my perpetual seeking, in my deep desire, to find myself in the all-embracing presence of the Almighty. I pray that you, my beloved sisters and brothers of Morgan Park American Baptist Church, find similar comfort and similar consolation! Amen!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor