Why Suffering?

March 18, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert


The Apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians today, “Blessed be the God of mercies and the God of all consolation,  who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” As we near the end of the Lenten Season, we draw closer to the dramatic stories of Holy Week, of Jesus’ Last Supper with his closest friends and disciples, his arrest, and his crucifixion on Good Friday.  Many, many Christians wrestle with the meaning of all of this in their own lives and in the way they understand their faith amidst the drama of our world and the drama of our own lives.  We cannot get to the celebration of Easter without this important story and next week on Palm Sunday we will remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the events that unfold there… of sorrow and desolation and physical and emotional suffering.  How do we make sense of all of this?  Why is suffering such a central part of what it means to be human and of the Christian story?  Let us pray, O God of all mercies, help us to better understand this season of Lent as we seek to deepen our faith and walk with one another in times of suffering and of joy.  Amen.

I have mentioned more than once that I had the great privilege of traveling to different communities in Latin America both before and during my time as a college chaplain.  These visits were inspired by my own studies of Liberation Theology during my senior year in college as well as from the witness of great spiritual heroes of mine, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and of four churchwomen who were killed in the early 1980’s in El Salvador because of their work with the poor in that country.

My studies of Liberation Theology over the years came to life through my direct experiences with faith communities I had the opportunity to visit with during my travels to Mexico, Nicaragua and Ecuador over the years.  The people whom I met helped provide me with an important lens through which I came to understand the suffering of Jesus and the meaning of the cross.

There is much that could be said about Liberation Theology, but essentially, it grew out of the experience of many people of faith throughout Latin America who struggled to explain the great suffering of the people, especially in the most impoverished areas of so many countries.  Church folks began to ask what the Christian faith had to say about the tremendous disparity of wealth that existed in too many places and of the cycles of poverty and suffering and violence that people found themselves in and still find themselves surrounded by even today.

Folks were asking what does the Good News of the Gospel mean to the people who live in such extreme poverty and oppression?  What does our faith teach us about this lived reality?  And their answer:  Jesus came to teach us about the Kingdom and about how all should be treated with dignity and respect; that is the Good News.  The Kingdom is both not yet and already here, meaning we are not supposed to wait meekly for some form of liberation from this suffering until after we die; we are called to help be co-creators of this Kingdom here and now.  That is what God asks of us when we are called to do justice.

And they believe that Jesus himself was put to death because he challenged the status quo of his day, he challenged the religious authorities but also the Roman authorities who had constructed a system of government that also kept people from living fully and with dignity.  Jesus saw so much suffering in his travels and he offered miraculous healing; he offered words of consolation, and he challenged people to change their ways, to live justly, and to understand that they were tied to one another as believers, as fellow human beings.  He reached out to everyone and thus he was a threat to the status quo of his day as more and more people were inspired by his message and his witness. He was put to death as so many political prisoners were in his time; he was crucified.

I brought this cross with me today.  Some of you have likely seen beautiful crosses from Latin America, made by the people in Guatemala and El Salvador and Nicaragua.  People of faith over many decades have organized themselves into what they call communidades de bases or Christian Base Communities where groups of people would come together for prayer and reflection and they would consider the liberating message of the Gospel through the experience of their own lives.  They would look for places where they could make change and then they would act on that change, then return for prayer and reflection.  They understand that Jesus’s suffering on the cross was his decision to join them in their human suffering.  God chose to become human… and to be fully human, we know, is to love and it is to suffer and Jesus lived out of that reality and died in that reality.

This beautiful cross is painted with the stories of the people there; I will pass it and these other crosses around.  People paint themselves onto the cross and so here are women in the midst of their daily lives, because they truly believe that Jesus enters into the reality of their lives and suffers with them and wants them to be free from that suffering, to be liberated from that suffering.

In Nicaragua, we visited the same village called El Bonete, each March over many years during college spring break.  We came to know a group of women who had organized themselves and received a  micro loan to set up a small cooperative farm together to raise certain crops and farm animals.  They work together and then they take the profits and use a third for their families, a third to reinvest, and a third for savings for seasons that do not go well.  They were so proud to bring us out to their farmland on the outskirts of town and show us what they had accomplished through their amazing hard work together and they shared their stories with us.

One of the women explained that the nuns who live in that community and helped them acquire the loan had convinced the women to take some of the proceeds and invest in themselves, because you see, many of these women had lost many of their teeth from child bearing.  Since they were all malnourished to some extent, when they were expecting, the baby would need the calcium for its development and drew it from its mother and so the women, over the years, had lost many of their teeth.  They often hid their smiles with their hands because they were embarrassed, but it also affected their ability to chew and to eat in healthy ways…and of course, they didn’t have access to decent dental care.  In any case, the nuns helped them to come to a decision that it would benefit them and their families for them to get dentures with some of the profits.  It was hard for these women to make that decision to do something for themselves, but with some encouragement and reflection together, that’s what they began to do.  It was a very moving story for our group, college students with beautiful straight white teeth, trying to imagine how life would be in the shoes of these women.

One of my favorite books is Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton which  was first published  in….If you have never read it, the book tells the story of a father’s journey from rural South Africa to  the city of Johannesburg in search of his son.  The main character is a Zulu pastor, Stephen Kumalo, and it speaks about the tragic discovery he makes in Johannesburg. It is in a prison cell that Kumalo eventually finds his son, Absalom,  facing trial for the murder of a white man—a man who ironically cared deeply about the plight of the native South African people and had been a voice for change until his untimely death. And we meet another father, that of the victim, whose own journey to understand his son eventually leads to his life and grief becoming strangely entwined with Kumalo’s.

The novel expresses the fullness of human emotion, and the author’s faith in human dignity in the worst of circumstances.  It also shows the brutality of apartheid,  and yet it still offers hope for a better future. As one writer said, “The novel itself is a cry for South Africa, which we learn is beloved in spite of everything; a cry for its people, its land, and the tentative hope for its freedom from hatred, poverty, and fear.”  We know that the system of apartheid was dismantled more than two decades ago and with the election of Nelson Mandela; however, the people of South Africa are still struggling to move forward after generations of the brutality of the apartheid system.   In the book, there is a powerful exchange between these two fathers and the Pastor, Kumalo, asks the important questions that many of us ask at some point in our lives.

“Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who knows for what we live, and struggle and die? Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break about us? Who knows why the warm flesh of a child is such comfort, when one’s own child is lost and cannot be recovered? Wise men write many books, in words too hard to understand. But this, the purpose of our lives, the end of all our struggle, is beyond all human wisdom.”

We may, in fact, feel at times that the purpose of our lives, especially in times of struggle and despair, is beyond all human understanding.  It is hard to wrestle with the ultimate questions  and so, we have so much in our culture that can serve to distract us, but if we pay attention, if we choose to engage those questions, we may not find all of the answers, but we may find some of the answers as we explore questions of faith and philosophy and we may find answers within the stories of our own lives.  From the book of Job to the crucifixion, from natural disasters to war and starvation, there are countless things in life which remind us again and again of the seeming imperfections of this created world.  And, over the years, so many people have shared with me that often it is the emotional suffering of life that is even harder to bear than the physical suffering.  Everyone at some time experiences suffering.  It is part of the human condition.  I don’t know that we will ever discover why there is suffering as a part of life.  We know some of the reasons come from how we treat one another and how we treat our precious planet, but others are certainly beyond all human understanding.  However, I think we can make choices along the way, choices to walk with one another in the midst of suffering, choices to take that experience and allow it to deepen our capacity for empathy and sympathy for others in their suffering.  And, we can choose to work to alleviate the suffering of others, wherever and whenever possible.

Three months ago, we celebrated the joy of Christmas, and we considered the idea that God choose to come among us as one like us, fully human, and to experience what the fullness of humanity meant with all of its joys and sorrows, and yes, the suffering.  Now as we draw closer to these final days of Lent, perhaps we may be able to imagine, as my  friends in Nicaragua do, that this great drama of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus was essential to that profound and liberating message Jesus had shared, that God does not want us to suffer but in fact joins us in our suffering and ultimately wants us to be liberated from the suffering and all of the things that lead us to places of suffering in our lives and in the world.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose feast day is March 24th  which was the day he was assassinated by the death squads in El Salvador while saying Mass in 1980,  has recently been approved for sainthood in the Catholic Church. He had grown up in family of privilege but chose to stand with the poor and oppressed in that country as he came to experience their profound suffering.  He once said,  “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried”

I mentioned earlier the four U.S. churchwomen, three nuns and a laywoman who were murdered in El Salvador in nine months after Romero, also because of their work among the poor there.  Just months before she died, Sr. Ita Ford wrote a letter to her niece with these words, words that have been shared by so many in memory of her, and for those pursuing some of the deeper questions of life.  She wrote,“I hope that you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you. Something worth living for – maybe even worth dying for, something that energize you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be – that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking and support you in the search.” Ita Ford, M.M.  August 1980