October 25, 2015 – Rev. Jan Hryniewicz
Text: Psalm 36: 5 – 9 & Habakkuk 3: 17 – 19
Author Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her best selling book Eat Pray Love: “I’ve had a lot of time to formulate my opinions about divinity since that night on the bathroom floor when I spoke to God directly for the first time. In the middle of that dark November crisis, though, I was not interested in formulating my views on theology. I was interested only in saving my life. I had finally noticed that I seemed to have reached a state of hopeless and life-threatening despair, and it occurred to me that sometimes people in this state will approach God for help. I think I read that in a book somewhere.
What I said to God through my gasping sobs was something like this:
“ Hello God. How are you? I’m Liz. It’s nice to meet you.”
That’s right – I was speaking to the creator of the universe as though we’d just been introduced at a cocktail party. But we work with what we know in life, and these are the words I use at the beginning of a relationship. In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself from saying, “ I’ve always been a fan of your work..”
Liz said that she chatted awhile between sobs, but her prayer finally narrowed down to:
“ I’m in serious trouble here, God. Please tell me what to do.”
After she uttered those words, she felt she had sobbed out her pain and suddenly felt calm. Then she heard a voice in her head….not some Charlton Heston kind of Hollywood God voice…but a normal voice saying: “ Go back to bed, Liz.” “ Go back to bed because I love you and you need to get some rest.”
She concludes: “ I would call what happened that night, not a religious conversion, in the sense of being born again, but the beginning of a religious conversation. The first words of an open and exploratory dialogue that would ultimately bring me very close to God indeed.”
Elizabeth Gilbert did what thousands of people have done since the beginning of human history …. called out to a Higher Power in a time of intense pain, heartbreak, crisis….emotional and/or physical devastation: Please God…..help me! Please tell me what to do.”
We have all heard the comment, perhaps even uttered the comment that Pain is a powerful teacher…. No Pain, No Gain? We learn from our mistakes and try not to go to that place again!
“Plato once said that pain restores order to the soul. Rumi said that it lops off the branches of indifference. “The throbbing vein / will take you further / than any thinking.”
The chapter from Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World that we are focusing on today is called The Practice of Feeling Pain.
Hmmm, you might well ask. Why would we want to practice feeling pain!? Good question! How can feeling pain be a spiritual practice? Taylor explains that pain is not optional for human beings…it is non-negotiable. We will encounter pain in our lives….physical, emotional, spiritual, mental pain. It is going to happen! And, feeling pain can be handled in a variety of ways.
She writes: I can try to avoid pain or deny pain. I can try to numb it and I can fight it. Or I can decide to engage pain when it comes to me, giving it my full attention so that it can teach me what I need to know about the Really Real!
If you have ever made a graph of your life – writing your birthday at the left side of the page and today’s date at the right, filling in the major events in your life that have made you who you are – then you are likely to note that the spikes in your pain bear some relationship to the leaps in your growth.” Perhaps you agree…. as painful as it may be to admit it!
I came across an amusing cartoon:
We all know that there are degrees of pain and suffering and we have heard it said that those who have lived a protected, insulated life have not matured to the extent of those who have struggled and suffered and were forced to make difficult decisions and choices to survive.
Stephen Hawking said that before he became ill, he had very little interest in life. He called it a “pointless existence” resulting from sheer boredom. He drank too much and did very little work. Then he learned he had ALS Syndrome and was not expected to live more than two years. The ultimate effect of that diagnosis, beyond its initial shock, was extremely positive. He claimed to have been happier after he was afflicted than before. How can that be understood? Hawking provided the answer.
“When one’s expectations are reduced to zero,” he said, “one really appreciates everything that one does have.” Stated another way: contentment in life is determined in part by what a person anticipates from it. To a man like Hawking who thought he would soon die quickly, everything takes on meaning–a sunrise or a walk in a park or the laughter of children. Suddenly, each small pleasure becomes precious. By contrast, those who believe life owes them a free ride are often discontent with its finest gifts.
Most of the Psalms were born in difficulty. Most of the Epistles were written in prisons. Most of the greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers of all time had to pass through the fire. Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress from jail. Florence Nightingale, too ill to move from her bed, reorganized the hospitals of England. Semi paralyzed and under the constant menace of apoplexy, Louis Pasteur was tireless in his attack on disease. During the greater part of his life, American historian Francis Parkman suffered so acutely that he could not work for more than five minutes as a time. His eyesight was so wretched that he could scrawl only a few gigantic words on a manuscript, yet he contrived to write twenty magnificent volumes of history.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: I had been teaching world religions for several years before I realized how many of them grew out of suffering. Buddhism began when the over privileged Prince Siddhartha, protected from suffering since his birth, left the palace grounds one day and saw a sick man, an old man, and a dead man for the first time in his life. These three passing sights so affected him that he dedicated the rest of his life to easing the suffering of all who faced the pain inherent in being alive. Judaism’s central story is the story of the Exodus, in which God heard the cries of an immigrant people suffering forced labor, fatal beatings and the murder of newborns in the land of Egypt. Moses was recruited by God to lead his enslaved people to freedom! They emerged a free people with a future in a new land. Christianity began when Jesus emerged from his own wilderness experience to minister to the suffering of an occupied people, occupied not only by Rome but also by the fear that their long oppression meant that God had abandoned them. He addressed this fear by healing the sick, feeding the hungry and freeing those possessed with demons. Islam began in a cave outside the desert city of Mecca, where the prophet Muhammad prayed to God for some solution to the tribal warfare that was tearing his people apart. When the angel Gabriel appeared on that Night of Power, commanding him to recite the first verse of the Qur’an, the Prophet had the beginning of God’s answer.”
Pain is provocative. It pushes people to the edge…prompting the question: “ Why is this happening to me. To civilization? Pain seems to be able to command our full attention. Taylor comments: “ Pain makes theologians of all of us.” Pain and suffering brings us to our knees in surrender, seeking the strength and healing of a higher Power to provide what we need to go on.
The theatrical manager exclaimed: “Your last role was magnificent, Mr. Brown. You enacted so well that officer wounded on the battlefield. Your suffering was very believable. Your pain looked real!
” “It was. I’ve got a large nail in my shoe.”
“Well,” said the manager, “for heaven’s sake, leave it in until the end of the run of the play.”
Who can look upon the evil and suffering which surround us and not be affected? Who can be impervious, for example, to: greed and hunger; exploitation and poverty; oppression and denial of human rights; crime and terrorism; the slaughter of innocents on our highways; the corruption of politics and governments; racial and gender prejudice and discrimination; religious bigotry and intolerance; slaughter of animals and devastation to the environment? It’s a challenging often-depressing world we live in.
The od icy is a branch of theology that has developed many arguments on how there can be a God, a good God, or a just God in the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world – about which God appears to do nothing. Fr. Richard Rohr writes in his book Breathing Under Water: “ The evidence is overwhelming that God fully allows and does not stop genocides, the abuse of children, brutal wars, unspeakable human and animal suffering, the imprisonment of the innocent, the sexual enslavement of girls and boys, the regular death of whole species and civilizations. Further, God seems to fully cause, or at least allow the natural disasters of drought, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunami, plagues, disease of every kind, many of which we call “acts of God,” and all of which have made much of human life nasty, solitary, poor, brutish, and short,” What are we to do with this?….Exactly how is God loving and sustaining what God created? That is our dilemma.”
Is all of this the WILL of God….part of God’s dream and plan for the Universe? If so, how then can we worship such a God?
This is a question, my friends that has plagued thoughtful people for centuries. It has inspired many to reject the idea of a benevolent Deity of any kind.
The psalms and Hebrew scriptures are filled with songs and prayers and stories of divine/human transactions…. because creation and its Creator have dwelled with disaster and suffering for generations….. and humanity has tried to solve the mystery of it all. And with our human minds and limited understanding, we have both blamed God for the suffering and expected God to fix it.
The rather obscure book of Habakkuk begins with a complaint. The prophet, who lived about the same time as Jeremiah in 600 BC, saw injustice, violence and evil in his own country and yet God remained silent and invisible. Why didn’t God intervene to stop the evil and suffering? Why did God ignore his pleas for help? Habakkuk brought these questions before God in prayer and he got an answer. Wasn’t one he wanted. God said he was sending the savage army of Babylonians to punish Judah. The army would tear Israel apart. Well, gee, thanks God!
This is an understanding of God that most of us have rejected and outgrown, thanks to the teachings and example of Jesus and others who have followed his teachings about the God of love, not the God of vengeance.
For generations, the Hebrews had suffered through invading armies. A Judean planted his field, never knowing whether or not he and his family would partake of the fruit of it. People existed from day to day, always fearful that a marauding band would descend upon the village to burn, plunder, and kill. And in the midst of this adversity and evil comes a lovely psalm of joy, which often goes unnoticed in the violence that proceeds it :
Though the fig trees do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive, fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off … yet! I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
It is a promise that we have heard countless times in Hebrew scriptures and from pulpits around the world today…that God will be faithful and will rescue us in times of trouble. It is an image of an intervening God and this image inspires many questions and much confusion.
Returning to the wisdom of Fr. Richard Rohr who writes:
“ I don’t see a God who jumps in to correct and improve things…who quickly fills in for our ignorance and evil. …. I do not see any all- powerful God taking power at all. It is very disappointing on most levels, and frankly boggles the rational mind, if that is what the rational mind expects from the divine. Exactly how isGod loving and sustaining what God created?
If God is somehow IN the suffering, participating as a suffering object too, in full solidarity with us in our pain, then I know that I am not alone in the universe.” This is what Richard Rohr believes and this is what makes good sense to me also. God suffers with us, bears and supports our pain.
Perhaps many of you saw the article on the front page of Friday’s Boston Globe, about Jeff Schwarz. You may have seen Jeff here in worship, at a speaker series event or at our Blessing of the animals. Jeff, a gifted architect who lives in Boston and summers here in Biddeford Pool was walking last January in Boston with his beloved dog, Buddy when he was struck by a school bus. Buddy was killed and Jeff was severely wounded, many broken bones and head trauma and his leg had to be amputated below the knee. He was in a coma for a month and has endured months of rehabilitation and many set backs, including seizures. He was devastated by the loss of his beloved dog and said he’d have traded his leg for his dog’s life any day. It truly is a miracle that Jeff survived and has done so with a positive attitude, ( not blaming God or the bus driver who struck him) determined to put the suffering behind him and live a full life with his precious new dog, Mandy… and with his new leg! Throughout all the months of suffering and pain, Jeff was blessed by the prayers of our church, and his many friends. Jeff, who is Jewish, attended worship here and stood to thank us for our prayerful support. He said he could feel the energy and the love and it helped so much! So so true! That is the way God works…..the way the Divine Spirit participates in the suffering and inspires healing of body and spirit. God calls us forth to be healers ….to be the glimpses of light in the darkness of pain.
― Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book , Eat, Pray, Love writes:
“A family in my sister’s neighborhood was recently stricken with a double tragedy, when both the young mother and her three-year-old son were diagnosed with cancer. When Catherine told me about this, I could only say, shocked, “Dear God, that family needs grace.” She replied firmly, “That family needs casseroles,” and proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing that family dinner, in shifts, every single night, for an entire year. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this IS grace.”
Yes, there is evil, darkness, pain and suffering in our lives. This is a free choice universe and some of our personal choices and the some choices people in power make on our behalf are unwise and cause devastating consequences. The Divine Energy is in the midst of it all….not causing it or stopping it like some manipulative, intervening Deity, but calling forth the goodness, the divinity in each of us…to be the light…to be the love….to create the peace. God is our source of strength and wisdom, enabling the healing to take place.
I believe that pain does teach us wisdom….. enabling us to go deeper in search of the divine energy in energy stored within us. Suffering teaches us compassion for the suffering of others deepens our relationship with God, the Source of our compassion and healing.
I close with the beautiful words of the psalmist who expresses the reality of the steadfast love of God that supports and upholds us no matter what life tosses our way.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people take refuge in the shadow of your wings.*d
WE feast on the abundance of your house;
from your delightful streame you give us drink.
For with you is the fountain of life,f
and in your light we see light.g
We are never left alone to suffer in the darkness of pain and sorrow. Never. Amen.