Friday, March 16, 2012

Concerning pain

Lenten Meditation 16 March 2012

            “Not that enlightened people must be rejected, but it is true that wounded and rejected people have a much greater chance of seeing clearly and having something to say (they also have a greater chance of being bitter!).  But Jesus still sends his followers to that place, because wisdom emerges from what you do with your pain!  It is a unique and needed perspective, as poets, artists and seers have always understood.  In fact, I would find it hard to understand all of the beatitudes in any other way (see Matthew 5:1-12).”  (page 101)

Job on dungheap (from the Admont Giant-Bible, ca. 1140) 

            Chapter five purports to be all about power—both good and bad.  Richard Rohr, however, enters into a conversation concerning pain, a seemingly tangential focus.  His discussion concerns how individuals and communities ultimately deal with pain and suffering, whether it is from physical causes, rejection, failure or any other source.  Another way of understanding what the quotation is pointing toward is that in pain, human beings are able to focus on what is most important, making first things first, or as a friend of mine from many decades ago used to say, “to stop majoring in the minors.”

            Those who have never experienced pain in any form are less likely to be able to understand it or even come close to one who is in pain.  Sickness, and the attendant pain, can be an extremely uncomfortable situation for human beings.  Too often I have heard parishioners say they didn’t want to visit someone who is seriously ill, perhaps even terminally ill, because they don’t know what to say.  And I must say that in that discomfort we sometimes babble and say the “wrong” thing.  I am certain that everyone reading this meditation has some knowledge of the character Job.  Some may not know the whole story, and if you do not, I recommend a good reading of the Book of Job.  After he has been inflicted with boils, a condition which renders him a leper because of oozing sores, Job goes out of the city to sit on the sewage pile (dung heap) and to reside there.  He has three friends, Zophar, Elephaz, and Bildad, who come from a great distance to visit him, having heard of the calamities with which he has been afflicted (including losing ALL of his children, his wealth and his health).  From a distance they see his misery and as they approach, they internalize his pain to such an extent that they remain silent for seven days, simply sitting with Job.  After seven days they produce more pain with their words and arguments.  Each asks in long poetic discourses what Job has done, how Job has offended God, to bring this suffering upon himself.  To each Job replies, “Nothing, I am innocent.”  His “friends” will have none of that and continue to batter Job with their accusations.  Job finally becomes so angry that he does accuse God of not understanding, to which God replies, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38ff)

            There is much to learn from Job’s friends.  When I have been a part of the training of Stephen Ministers—or others doing much the some sort of visitation ministry—I have always cautioned against talking too much, rather listening and as we like to say “empathizing” with the other.  The ministry of presence is heightened by our own ability to grasp another’s pain by knowing how we have suffered in some form and at some depth.  I have never been diagnosed—at least not to date—with a terminal illness, but I know the pain of failure, rejection, and illness.  When I am able to access those feelings and memories, I can grasp at least a bit of the other’s fear, loss, and suffering and sit with them, perhaps weep with them, knowing that God is present and suffering alongside them.  My goal is to be present. The operative word is be, not do

            I remember a person who was seeking ordination who was asked at a conference where we explored with the aspirants their experience and understanding of ministry (it was called BACAM, but I can never remember what each of the letters of the acronym stood for).  This person was asked when he had failed at something.  He pondered for a while and said he had never failed at anything.  Many of us knew that he had failed to complete two areas of study, he had had a failed marriage, and there were other areas that were problematic.  He was not recommended for postulancy, because the team felt he would never be able to grasp the pain and suffering of others until he could come to grips with the pain in his own life.  He reminded me of Job’s friends.

            Pain and suffering, regardless of the cause—be it illness, death of a loved one, our own impending death, accident, termination from a job, financial woes, divorce—can, and I say can, help us to prioritize our life in a healthy manner.  As Rohr says, it can also make us bitter.  By seeking priorities, we have the opportunity to focus on the true first things and let some of the niggling “stuff” go. 

            I do not encourage anyone to go out and seek pain just to be able to relate to others better; but I do encourage everyone to think back to those time that have been painful.  Some have experienced bullying in childhood or youth, some have suffered from illness that was debilitating, even if now recovered; some have lost loved ones who were close.  Whatever your life experience, it is worth recalling those times to see in retrospect where God was present in order to look for God’s presence in the present.  Lent is a great time to reflect; let this be a part of your reflection, not just so that you can rejoice in knowing God’s presence more thoroughly, but in order to proclaim God’s presence to others now.  How else are we going to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

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