How Do We Suffer Well?

HOW DO WE SUFFER WELL?

A)   INTRODUCTION

This week our community suffered a tragic loss in the death of Dom Cox.  Many of you have known him, some intimately, and others of us casually.  Some only know of him, but each of us is affected by this sorrow, because the scriptures make clear to us we are “one Body – many parts”.

Our church community also belongs to Kenton Regehr, who was driving the boat when the accident happened.  He is suffering tremendously and we, who are a part of his story, are also called to bear this burden with him and his family.

This is not the first time our church community has known tragedy, nor will it be the last.  At Christmas we will celebrate the memory and legacy of Myron Berg - through the annual hockey game played in his honour.  His death in a car accident nearly three years ago, and the extensive injuries his family suffered, are not forgotten.  Many of us never had the privilege of knowing Myron, but we’ve witnessed the courage of his family as they have overcome countless hurdles in the healing journey.  Their story has become part of our story – The Bridge story.  We know ourselves to be different because of witnessing the Berg family journey well through their suffering.  We too have learned, and grown, and been shaped by walking alongside them.

Then, last summer, another family in our church, Joel and Natasha Roste lost their baby boy at birth.  This great sorrow was compounded by another young couple in our church giving birth at almost the same moment, just down the hall.  And both families were attended by doctors from our congregation.  There are layers to the pain and suffering in this story that none of us know well how to navigate, but we’ve prayed for the grace to walk this road well – to love, to serve, and to carry one another through darkness.

Last night we received word that Doug and Julia Wiens are also in profound need of our prayer and support.  Julia’s water broke last Sunday and because she was only 28 weeks pregnant, and due to the baby’s previously known abnormalities, she is being cared for at BC Women’s hospital.  Although Julia has been experiencing some contractions, she has stabilized and it is uncertain when she will go into labour. The baby could be born at any time or it may take several weeks. Doug says, “Although the doctors hold little hope for our baby we ask that you continue to lift us up in your prayers to the God who can do the impossible.”

And now today we’ve gathered to worship together and have a new part to play in suffering together.  Perhaps it goes without saying to know that not everyone in this room is personally affected by Dom’s death, but all of us have known pain and loss, to greater or lesser degrees.  And all of us will continue to know pain and loss.  So, regardless of how much pain you, or the person next to you, may be in today, we each must consider what it means to suffer well, and to suffer together as the people of God.

 

B)   KEEP MOVING TOWARD GOD 

My relationship with suffering has taught me that suffering is not static.  We are moving in our suffering; either toward others, or away from them – and ultimately either toward God or away from Him. 

Psalm 84 speaks to this when the Psalmist says, “Blessed is the one who has set their heart on pilgrimage.  Though they (the suffering one) pass through the Valley of Baca…(valley of weeping)… they shall go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” This Psalmist knew there is a trajectory in suffering.  He urges God’s people to keep our orientation toward God, even in our place of pain.

Often times our movement toward God and even toward others, takes place in the form of questions.

Times in our life that are marked by profound loss, pain, and sorrow cause questions to erupt in our hearts and minds, which beg for answers.  We wonder, “Why did this happen? What did Dom do to deserve this?  What did we do to deserve this?  Doesn’t God care?  What kind of God are you anyway? How could you let this happen?”  And perhaps a myriad of other questions, each nuanced by our own heart ache and longing unfulfilled.  Some of us hold these questions internally, never giving voice to them, while others rail at the heavens, our anger and disappointment spilling out all over the place.  When profound suffering comes our questions are no longer easily quieted, and ignoring the emotional and social layers to our pain becomes more and more difficult.  And so, asking questions – even angry ones – somehow has a grace embedded in it, because it means we hope Someone is listening.  And there is a goodness in that.  The question asking can be the beginning of a movement toward God.

If we are to grow in our relationship with God it best happens through honest interaction.  Early days of heart honesty serve to remind us that we are not God, we don’t know all or see all.  Only He has all the answers, and so to begin we must bring our questions to Him, whether we hear the answer we want or not.

Christians for many generations have also discovered that it is extremely helpful to use the words of the Psalms to give voice to what we cannot say ourselves.  For some of us, it will simply be the act of opening a difficult Psalm (like 88) and letting these ancient words become our own.  As Calum mentioned earlier, when he quoted NT Wright, “The Psalms offer us a way of worshiping God amid any and all emotional states.”

However you do it, especially in your place of grief, remember to keep moving toward God…keep your heart dialogue going with Him.

We are human.  It is only right that loss ought to provoke a deep sense of injustice inside us.  Particularly death, the greatest loss, ought to make us feel that something is horribly wrong.  It is.  The world is broken and death is the grave consequence humanity has faced since the garden.  It is not good, not holy, not as we were intended to experience life.  Death is a curse.

We don’t have answers for many of our heart questions.  But today I believe it is very important that as followers of Jesus we know a few things about what God does say about our suffering.

First of all, did you know that one third of all scripture is lament?  We even have a book in the bible called Lamentations.

Lament “expresses an emotion opposite to praise” (Geneva Study Bible)

“...in lament the psalmist opens his/her heart honestly to God, a heart often filled with sadness, fear, or even anger.” (Geneva Study Bible)

Psalm 88 leaves us hanging.  It doesn’t wrap up with a big fat “so that” or “but God” at the end of it.  This Psalm being included in the scripture should tell us that God is not afraid of our despair.  He can handle it.

The sheer volume of scriptures given to articulate human lament should tell us how very willing God is to hear our heart cry, and how essential and important He thinks it is for us to be honest with Him in our sorrow.  If this wasn’t so important he would have given us a book of happiness, but instead he gave us his holy word so that we would know him and so that we would realize He knows us, he knows our reality.

One other thing to note is that Job is both the oldest and the darkest book in the Bible.

Remember how Job’s friends tried to defend God’s honour and ended up alienating Job? (this should teach us that it is not our job to answer the hard questions)

God’s response to Job’s questions was more questions.  It was His presence was the answer...

Presence is the essence of the “answer” from this first book of the Bible, in response to human suffering.  And so we learn God’s presence matters more to the suffering person than anything else.

 

C)    GOD IS PRESENT 

I had a conversation with Dom on August 18th, here at our worship gathering.  He and I found ourselves over in the school, in the back room with our little ones.  I asked him if I could share an idea I had for the young adults in our church community, and get some feedback from him as to whether it was a good idea or not…

I told him that in conversation with another young adult, one of his closest friends, I had come to understand the deep level of community they all felt with one another.  One could say they were doing life together in meaningful ways.  But I had learned that these young adults didn’t feel particularly spiritually alive.  They would get together for homegroup but not feel much like praying, or opening a bible, or having a spiritual conversation.  I asked Dom, “Do you, like your friend, feel almost like you don’t have a real need for God?” 

“Absolutely”, he said.  “We have everything.  All our ducks are in a row.  We need to be desperate again, or something.  I don’t know what it’ll take…”, he trailed off.

So, I told him I had this idea of gathering the young adults for a Saturday brunch in October, to have a time for community building and to offer some food for thought, that might provoke spiritual formation.

Dom looked up at me, with a spark in his eye, and said in his quirky, Aussie way, “Do it!  Do it! Stoke the fire!!  Bacon and stoking the fire!  I’m in.  I’ll help and rally the others.  We need the fire stoked again.”

Gillian Berg, who is certainly one of the leading experts on how to suffer well in our community (and not simply because of the sheer extent she has suffered, but because of how well  she has suffered), said to me yesterday that we need to pay close attention to what happened in the days leading up to this tragedy.  “God is in those moments, and when we look back in hindsight we have a sense that He has been over all.”

My conversation with Dom, limited though it was, left me really encouraged that day.  But now, with hindsight, his words sound rather prophetic.  I don’t mean this to be a trite answer to our desperate heart cry of “why God?!?” but it may be a small part of how God will work some good out of this awful tragedy.  Maybe Dom has become a catalyst in stoking the fire of our hearts.  Maybe our loss of this dear brother could become a conduit through which we can better encounter the presence of God.

When we consider the presence of God, I do not merely mean a mystical encounter with the Holy Spirit.  I also mean the person of Jesus.  Remember, the scriptures teach us Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us.  And not just alongside, but entrenched in our reality, the human reality of the fallen-ness and brokenness of the world and of the curse we struggle with.  We suffer. We die.  We are powerless to change the curse we live with.  But we have a God who has not stood far off from our suffering, but who has entered in, bodily, into our world and has himself experienced immense suffering and death.  Jesus entered into our suffering and took on death, defeating it, and this is the greatest hope that the world has ever known.  His kingdom has broken in to our world, and one day all the wrong will be made right.  It is for that day that we wait…and in the meantime we hold on to the comfort we have in following a God who has entered all the way into our suffering. 

 It is so important that we remember that Jesus, our resurrected Lord, bore scars on his body after the Resurrection.  I’ve often pondered that.  Christ has forever identified himself with suffering, and has taken that permanent scarring with him to heaven, representing us as one of us.  How incredible to realize that to believe in the resurrection does not mean a denial of what has happened. Christ’s resurrection did not mean a removal of the past pain and it’s evidence.  It has remained.  Wounds may heal, through the grace and presence of Jesus, but scars remain.  We are forever changed by our suffering and should take comfort in following our God who also bears the marks of our ongoing suffering.

And because Jesus conquered death we who follow him live with a different posture in life, no matter what we face.  As David says in Psalm 23,

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

What a comfort to know Emmanuel, God with us, is with us even in death, with us in sorrow, with us in the place of unanswered questions, with us in loss – with us in every aspect of what it means to be human.

There is literally nothing any of us can journey through, even the valley that is shadowed with death, where the resurrection life of Christ cannot permeate.  There is no part of our life in which Christ Jesus cannot prove the vitality of his presence by His Holy Spirit. 

Psalm 23 calls us to know Jesus, God with us, in the dark place, in the grieving place, experiencing rest in spite of the hardness of the journey. I want to encourage each of us to move toward deeper places of surrender remembering this Psalm.

And finally I want us to consider how to be present to one another, in the way of Jesus.

The greater my experience of Christ’s presence, the better I am able to practice “presence” with others, as one who bears His Grace.  Many of us still need to learn the importance of “presence”, being with the one who suffers.

Luke 10 shows the importance of getting in the ditch.  When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, what he omitted is perhaps as important as what he said. He didn’t say the Samaritan laid his hands on the man beaten and left for dead in the ditch, and he was healed.  The man simply did his part to bind up the wounds, and to care for the brokenness the other had experienced.  Or in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 25, when Jesus talks about the practice of his presence he says “I was sick and you visited me”. 

Grieving is a type of sickness of the soul.  And when we share in this suffering with so many in our church community, we too must try to practice simply being present.  Not fixing, not ignoring.  Being present to the reality the other person is experiencing.

I want to share with you a few thoughts from a couple of folks I mentioned earlier.  These words are from women in our church community who have suffered well and continue to shape our understanding of how we too can suffer well.

Natasha Roste offers us these words:

“For me “grieving well” meant letting people into my life.  Over and over again at the Bridge “connect” is said, and it is so vital to a healthy human existence.  My initial response after losing my baby boy, was to shut down and lock everyone out.  This pain was MINE.  But I know that it effected others, obviously my family, but also my friends and even coworkers.  Because Joel and I made it a point to talk and remain close and a few “pushy” good friends and an online support group, we talked and talked and talked.  It was SO unbelievably important to connect with people who had suffered in the same way as I had.  And still I clung to my pain and my broken heart, and behind every smile I felt my heart hurting. 

At just over 1 year on a sunny day after a walk I felt this weird feeling, that I hadn’t felt in so long.  It lasted only a second, but as the sun rays filled my car and my music was loud I felt happiness.  And I felt like God was telling me it was ok to feel happy now.  That night I prayed or just “thought on God” and felt like I was given this picture.  It was me, a tiny black and white stick figure struggling with the weight of this huge box (which for some reason looked like an eraser) then this perfect human hand, which was way bigger than my whole body, in full colour and definition was reaching down offering to take it from me.  I had kept my grief so close to my heart for long enough, and I could give the weight of it to God.   It doesn’t have to define me.

My advice to Kylee for the first couple weeks are breathe, eat, sleep and accept what others are giving you.  Just surviving is enough, let others take care of you; they need it as much as you do. 

My advice for others is to not be afraid to talk about Dominic, say his name, tell stories about him especially with Kylee and Nixon.“

And from our sister Gillian Berg, hear these words,

“1. Everybody is different. Everyone will grieve in their own way and in their own time. And that's okay. (Obviously if it is destructive, that's different.) One of my children grieved openly and fully right from the start and she is probably the healthiest of them all, emotionally, right now. Another, is just beginning to grieve now, after holding it in for two years and being unwilling and "not needing" to talk about it. That being said, I can only state what was good/not so good for ME, and maybe in reference to some of the kids. The stages of grieving are not concurrent. They wash over each other, again and again, until you at times wonder which one you are in. I still find myself in some kind of denial without realizing it. I get angry. I am still in shock. I have moments of clarity and acceptance.

2. The best and most fulfilling times were those moments/hours/days where someone who was close to Myron sat with me and cried and let out their pain alongside me. It wasn't those who came to grieve in front of me, rather those who in my grief, let theirs join in. It validated my own pain and loss. It validated that he was missed, that he was remembered. It made all the difference in the world. For me.

3. I needed to know Myron was remembered, missed and not forgotten. When people avoided me or talked as though I had been off on vacation somewhere and life was going on, it hurt. It helped not to have sympathy, but to have the sense that people understood that everything had changed. I was walking a new path, a terrifying path, and that none of it had been by choice. Just give them a hug and say you love them, if you don't know what to say.

4. Being asked, "How are you" was a horrible question. (I wrote a whole entry on the blog about this (*gillianb-journeying.blogspot.ca* some 600,000 people have read her words – we should take note, especially those of us who need someone who has suffered well to teach us the way on this journey). I recognized that for many, they REALLY wanted to know how I was, but there was no answer that made sense to me and that wasn't difficult to speak. Just assume, for a long time, that things are not okay. This does not mean that God is not speaking, or working, or that there is no way to smile. I think, especially when the death comes unexpectedly and with no chance to speak to your loved one, one last time, you find yourself in a kind of hell where nothing is as it seemed and there is no longer anything within your control. It has been 2.5 years and I still hate answering that question.

5. Memories. Write down a memory you had of Dom, anything that sticks with you, and send it to Kylee. Every word will be precious. It reminds her that he is not forgotten, that he made a difference in this life, that people recognize that he was unique and special. Also, one day for their son, Nixon. When you called today, Joyce, I was in the process of clearing out our entire top floor for renovations. I was literally sitting on my bed, reading through hundreds of cards that people had written their memories on at Myron’s Memorial. It is so meaningful.

6. Kylee will be exhausted. For a very long time.  Be sensitive and aware that she will only be able to take things in small doses and may need a break from sympathy or reminders. Strangers who don't know her or didn't know Dom, will be tiring. It seems like a contradiction to everything I've said earlier, but it's true. She won't have the energy to pick up the phone, or ask for help, or spend time talking when you drop off the meal. She will want to curl up in a ball, or distract herself so she doesn't need to think. So be sensitive. She has nothing to give out right now.

7. TIME DOES NOT HEAL. RIght now, God will not use this for good (He will, but it will take years to even be able to ponder that). Time will never heal this loss or remove it. Jesus will not fill the hole; He will sit with you beside it until you are strong enough to walk around it and then learn to carry it with you. He will give you the strength, slowly, and without your realizing, to keep moving. But it will never be gone or healed.

 (**note what I said earlier about Jesus bearing scars on his resurrected body**)

 

D)   CONCLUSION

We will need some time to take in the words these women in our community have offered.  If you need the audio or the written text for this morning, please ask at the sound desk.  I recognize not everyone will be able to take in all of what has been said and to apply it, but my hope is that some of it will be helpful.

Grief a journey, a process if you will, and I want to encourage each one of us to courageously and honestly walk it out with God.  It is my firm conviction that if we enter into honest dialogue with God about our pain, anger, loss, and confusion we could in turn experience the presence of God with us in the place of suffering and darkness.  Those who have walked this path and opened themselves to the great Shepherd know the revelation that God is with us, and His care and love will never ever fail us.  This is our profound comfort.

We want to create room now in a time of worship for us to respond, as we are able, to the Lord.  Our tears are a valid prayer.  Opening our hands.  Kneeling.  Singing.  Whatever we need to do to move toward God, and to encounter his willing presence.

If you would like someone to pray with you, and don’t know who to ask, please go to the prayer corner and someone from the prayer team will certainly join you in prayer. 

Every Sunday communion is available as well in the back corner.  Perhaps today you may want to take communion as an intentional invitation to welcome the presence of God into you body – into your whole being…

Prayer.