Suffering


 

Hallelujah by MaMuse

Every time I feel this way
This, old familiar sinking
I will lay my troubles
Down by the water
Where the river
Will never run dry

Hallelujah Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted, I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Bye and bye
I will lay my troubles down by the water
Where the river will never run dry

It’s been said and I do believe
As you ask so shall you receive
So take from me these troubles
Bring me sweet release
Where the river will never run dry

Hallelujah Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted, I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Bye and bye
I will lay my troubles down by the water
Where the river will never run dry

There is a river
In this heart of hearts
With a knowingness
Of my highest good
I am willing
I will do my part
Where the river
Will never run dry

Hallelujah Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted, I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Bye and bye
I will lay my troubles down by the water
Where the river will never run dry

Where the river
Will never run dry
This river
Will never run dry

I love stories. They allow me to see a more full picture of humanity – a unique glimpse of God and the faultiness of our beings. I see the glory of all humans were intended to be and the awful brokenness of who we are. Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present offers glimpses into the lives and the stories of women in the United States since 1775. The words in this letter were written by one of the bravest women I know… and yet she invalidates and diminishes herself by revealing her belief that to be emotional is to be weak and feeble, and that emotions are something to be conquered. Commonality arises, as to this day, this belief is still entrenched in our values and in how boys and girls are socialized. In understanding what her words reveal through omission, I am also forced to confront the greater reality that the fight for women’s suffrage was fought primarily for White women. This is still a tension today, as women of color often feel they must chose between fighting against racism or sexism. As a White woman who is a follower of Jesus, I must stand side-by-side with all my sisters, and ask to be given the honor to hear their stories.

With American men overseas, the war offered American women new possibilities – not only for hard and important work, but also for political leverage. In 1917, Alice Paul and a group of suffragists started picketing the White House on a nearly daily basis, demanding the vote. The presence of these self-named “Silent Sentinels,” as well as their placards (“Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty”) was a constant affront to Woodrow Wilson and an embarrassment before visiting dignitaries. In June of 1917, the first six women were arrested, and eleven more on July 4, on charges of obstructing traffic. Rose Winslow was among one group sentences to seven months in prison. After staging a huger strike – in which the women asked to be treated as political, not criminal, prisoners – they were brutally force-fed. The letter below is comprised of a series of notes smuggled out from the prison hospital to Winslow’s husband and her friends.

1917: December
Rose Winslow to her husband and to members of the National Woman Party.

If this thing is necessary we will naturally go through with it. Force is so stupid a weapon. I feel so happy doing my bit for decency – for our war, which is after all, real and fundamental…

The women are all so magnificent, so beautiful. Alice Paul is as thin as ever, pale and large-eyed. We have been in solitary for five weeks. There is nothing to tell but that the days go by somehow. I have felt quite feeble the last few days – faint, so that I could hardly get my hair brushed, my arms ached so. But to-day I am well again. Alice Paul and I talk back and forth though we are at opposite ends of the building and a hall door also shuts us apart. But occasionally – thrills – we escape from behind our iron-barred doors and visit. Great laughter and rejoicing!…

My fainting probably means nothing except that I am not strong after these week. I know you won’t be alarmed.

I told about a syphilitic colored woman with one leg. The other one was cut off, having rotted so that it was alive with maggots when she came in. The remaining one is now getting as bad. They are so short of nurses that a little colored girl of twelve, who is here waiting to have her tonsils removed, waits on her. This child and two others share a ward with a syphilitic child of three or four years, whose mother refused to have it at home. It makes you absolutely ill to see it. I am going to break all three windows as a protest against their confining Alice Paul with these!

Dr. Gannon is chief of a hospital. Yet Alice Paul and I found we have been taking baths in one of the tubs here, in which this syphilitic child, an incurable, who has his eyes bandaged all the time, is also bathed. he has been here a year. Into the room where he lives came yesterday two children to be operated on for tonsillitis. They also bathed in the same tub. The syphilitic woman has been in that room seven months. Cheerful mixing, isn’t it? The place is alive with roaches, crawling all over the walls, everywhere. I found one in my bed the other day…

There is great excitement about my two syphilitics. Each nurse is being asked whether she told me. So, as in all institutons where an unsantiary fact is made public, no effort is made to make the wrong itself right. All hands fall to, to find the culprit, who made it known, and he is punished…

Alice Paul is in the psychopathic ward. She dreaded forcible feeding frightfully, and I had to think how she must be feeling. I had a nervous time of it, gasping a long time afterward, and my stomach rejecting during the process. I spent a bad, restless night, but otherwise I am all right. The poor soul who fed me got liberally besprinkled during the process. I hear myself making the most hideous sounds, like an animal in pain, and thought how dreadful it was of me to make such horrible sound… One feels so forsaken when one lies prone and people shove a pipe down one’s stomach…

This morning but for an astounding tiredness, I am all right. I am waiting to see what happens when the President realized that brutal bullying isn’t quite a statesmanlike method for settling a demand for justice at home. At least, if men are supine enough to endure, women – to their eternal glory – are not…

They took down the boarding from Alice Paul’s window yesterday, I heard. It is so delicious about Alice and me. Over in the jail a rumor began that I was considered insane and would be examined. Then came Doctor White, and said he had come to see “the thyroid case.” When they left we argued about the matter, neither of us knowing which was considered “suspicious.” She insitied it was she, and, as it happened, she was right. Imagine any one thinking Alice Paul needed to be “under observation!” The thick-headed idiots!…

Yesterday was a bad day for me in feeding. I was vomiting continually during the process. The tube has developed an irritation somewhere that is painful.

Never was there a sentence like ours for such an offense as ours, even in England. No woman ever got it over there even for tearing down buildings. And during all that agitation we were busy saying that never would such things happen in the United States. The men told us they would not endure such frightfulness…

Mary Beard and Helen Todd were allowed to stay only a minute, and I cried like a fool. I am getting over that habit, I think.

I fainted again last night. I just fell flop over in the bathroom where I was washing my hands and was led to bed when I recovered, by a nurse. I lost consciousness just as I got there again. I felt horribly faint until 12 o’clock, then fell asleep for awhile…

I was getting frantic because you seemed to think Alice was with me in the hospital. She was in the psychopathic ward. The same doctor feeds us both, and told me. Don’t let them tell you we take this well. Miss Paul vomits much. I do, too, except when I’m not nervous, as I have been every time against my will. I try to be less feeble-minded. It’s the nervous reaction, and I can’t control it much. I don’t imagine bathing one’s food in tears very good for one.

We think of the coming feeding all day. It is horrible. The doctor thinks I take it well. I hate the thought of Alice Paul as the others if I take it well…

We still get no mail; we are “insubordinate.” It’s strange, isn’t it; if you ask for food fit to eat, as we did, you are “insubordinate”; and if you refuse food you are “insubordinate.” Amusing. I am really all right. If this continues very long I perhaps won’t be. I am interested to see how long our so-called “splendid American men” will stand for this form of discipline.

All news cheers one marvelously because it is hard to feel anything but a bit desolate and forgetten here in the place.

All the officers here know we are making this hunger strike that women fighting for liberty may be considered political prisoners; we have told them. God knows we don’t want other women ever to have to do this over again.”

This weekend I was on a retreat with “my church” (aka the local group of believers that I choose to commune with and serve on a regular basis). With four of my favorite youth dozing off in my car, I drove home listening to Lecrae and this song reminded me:

There is something I am just not understanding.

The Church (as my Dad would remind my siblings and I almost every Sunday) is not the building but the people.

Christians – past, present, and future, local and global – collectively make up the Church.

The Church is the body of Jesus. Literally His hands and feet. He is no longer physically present with us but as the Church we bring His presence with us. We continue his work and ministry.

You’ve probably heard the verse that says, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Church makes that happen. We live out the Kingdom now. In the midst of the craziness of sin… and pain… and suffering… and loss.

It doesn’t make much sense for that to be possible. But as I wrote in my last post, there is something powerfully comforting about that.

This weekend as I watched my pastor’s little girl – content as can be – dance and prance around the camp, a friend commented how they love that this little girl marches to the beat of her own drum.

Isn’t that kind of what Christians do? To the world it looks crazy, and to us it feels ridiculous at times, but the simplicity and radical nature of following Jesus can be awfully appealing and astoundingly satisfying.

The Church makes the Kingdom known by the way we live, not just as individuals but more so by the way we live in community.

What I don’t understand is this:

Why do we change the way the Church functions depending on the specific context?

At Biola we have these conversations all the time. “We are not a church.” “We don’t operate as a church.” “It’s okay to do ___ at Biola because we are not a church.” “Stop talking/acting like we’re a church!”

It seems in these moments we are referring to “the church” as the local church, the local congregation.

But if the Church is the people and not the building or congregational name or tax ID number, why do we say it’s okay for us to do ___ because we are not a local church – when in reality we ARE the local Church?

How can we attempt to separate these two?

I would think that the same principles and Kingdom mentality would penetrate the Church wherever we go and whatever we do in whatever setting we’re in. I can see the model of leadership and method of disciplinary action vary.

But…

How can the same person who believes women shouldn’t teach men in the local church be okay with women teaching men in a university setting where both the men and women are a part of the Church?

How can the same person who believes women shouldn’t teach men in the local church be okay with sending single women as missionaries to teach men in other nations in order to bring them into the Church?

The same goes for having different beliefs about men and women in marriage verses men and women in ministry. I don’t understand how one can have different beliefs about the two if ultimately we are all a part of the Church.

I guess what I’m getting down to is this:

It seems that in order to make life easier for ourselves (aka wanting to pick and choose what is comfortable to us) we begin to drawn distinctions between marriage/ministry, local church/missions, local church/parachurch organization, local church/Christian university… to name a few.

But in reality, the Church (the people) isn’t changing –  only the structures/buildings/organizations.

This inconsistency has significant consequences especially for women because of the gifts that they may or may not be able to use to bless and build the Church.

The Church is a part of the crazy-sanity, failure-as-success, love-your-enemies, complex-simplicity, confusing-clarity, upside-down Kingdom. The Kingdom is wholly other than the structures we attempt to govern our lives by. It transcends politics, permeates diversity, and creates a bond stronger than biological family. Our weaknesses become our strengths and those whom the world considers worthless and a bother because of their inability to contribute to society are prized and treasured. We live in full acknowledgement of the brokenness around us while looking back towards what was intended to be and looking forward towards full restoration and redemption – and seeing these processes happen before our very eyes as we hover in between.

Witness the Kingdom. This is the Church.

Shouldn’t a Kingdom reality govern our lives instead of the limits of the structures we create – or even – the limits of our comfortability?

Earlier this week I snagged a few Christianity Today magazines from Student Development. One had a cover story with a couple in suit and white dress, riding a tandem bike – bride in the back 😉 – while the title read “The Case for Early Marriage: Settling Down Sooner Than Later Has Never Made More Sense”.

Needless to say, I thought “Is that so…”, mentally rolled my eyes, and hid it under the other magazines. I love reading this kind of stuff. I didn’t find the article particularly good but I appreciate the words of wisdom of David Gushee, who wrote a short response to the article.

In his response Gushee writes, “Mark Regnerus helps us to face certain unwelcome facts: Evangelical abstinence messaging is not stopping most young evangelicals from having sex; it is creating distorted expectations among Christians about the mind-blowing quality of marital sex.”

So true, right? I know I’m not the only one who knows a young couple who has bumped their wedding date up… and not because they had too much time to plan it. We were designed for sex; it’s a good thing. But it’s not the culmination or completion of life. As a single woman, this challenges me to look closer at other elements of life that may be more satisfying and life-enriching that I may have initially perceived them to be.

But the article that spoke to me the most was about the upside-down, life-giving nature of the Gospel. In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, I picked up The Upside-Down Kingdom, a gift from my boss this Christmas, and read the chapter on “loveable enemies”. I’ve been dwelling on this concept – that the Gospel surprises us by being simultaneously irrational and paradoxical while also filling a deep place within in us that we somehow did and didn’t know existed. It touches us in a way that calls to the origins of history, the way things were intended to be, while also calling us to act and react to the reality we know in ways that may seem weak, illogical, and unable to cause change.

I’ve copied the article below, for your reading pleasure.

What I’ve learned as life has taken a turn for what most people think is the worst.
by William J. Stuntz

“Survivors of some horrible plague or battle often find themselves wracked with guilt: Why did I live while so many died? Though I had no battle scars, I used to feel a similar sense of guilt. I married the only woman I’ve ever loved. We have three terrific children. I have a secure job that I love and that pays well. Sometimes I would ask God: Why have you been so kind to me? Why have I gotten such an easy life?

I don’t ask those questions anymore.

A little over nine years ago, while driving home from a family vacation, my car got a flat tire. When I started to change it, something nasty happened at the base of my back. Ever since, my lower back and the top half of my right leg have hurt. After two operations, dozens of injections, physical therapy, psychotherapy, and thousands of pills, my back and right leg hurt every waking moment, and most of those moments, they hurt a lot. Living with chronic pain is like having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up—and you can’t turn it down. You can’t run from it; the pain goes where you go and stays where you stay. Chronic pain is the unwelcome guest who will not leave when the party is over.

A few months after my back turned south, my family and I moved when I accepted a job at Harvard Law School. Our family began to unravel. One of our children suffered a life-threatening disease, and my marriage fell apart.

Those crises faded with time but left deep scars. Early last year, in February 2008, another piece of bad news struck me: Doctors found a large tumor in my colon; a month later, films turned up tumors in both of my lungs. In the past year, I’ve had two cancer surgeries and six months of intensive chemotherapy. I’ve been off chemo for a few months, but I’m still nauseous much of the time and exhausted most of the time. Cancer kills, but cancer treatment takes a large bite out of one’s pre-diseased life, as though one were dying in stages. Some of that stolen life returns when the treatment stops. But only some.

Today, my back and especially my right leg hurt as much as they ever have, and the odds are overwhelming that they will hurt for as long as this life lasts. Cancer will very probably kill me within the next two years. I’m 50 years old.

Such stories are common, yet widely misunderstood. Two misunderstandings are worth noting here. First, illness does not beget virtue. Cancer and chronic pain make me sick; they don’t make me good. I am who I was, only more diseased. Second, though I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened to me, those things didn’t happen because I deserve them. Life in a fallen world is more arbitrary than that. Plenty of people deserve better from life than I do, but get much worse. Some deserve worse and get much better. Something important follows: The question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes—why me?—makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.

Thankfully, God gives better and more surprising gifts to those living in hard times. Three gifts are especially sweet.

Redeeming Curses

First, God usually doesn’t remove life’s curses. Instead, he redeems them.

Joseph’s story makes this point. Joseph was victimized by two horrible injustices: one at the hands of his brothers who sold him into slavery, the other thanks to Potiphar’s wife, who falsely accused him of attempted rape. God did not undo these injustices; they remained real and awful. Instead, God used those wrongs to prevent a much worse one: mass starvation. When Joseph later met with his brothers, he said this about the transaction that started the train rolling: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” That doesn’t mean that slavery and unjust imprisonment are good; rather, the point is that they produced good, and the good they produced was larger than the wickedness that was visited upon Joseph. Evil was twisted back on itself, like a gun barrel turned so that it aims at the would-be murderer firing the weapon.

Joseph’s story foreshadows the central story of the Gospels. The worst day in human history was the day of Christ’s crucifixion, which saw the worst possible punishment inflicted on the One who, in all history, least deserved it. Two more sunrises and the Son rose: the best day in human history, the day God turned death itself against itself—and because he did so, each one of us has the opportunity to share in death’s defeat.

That is our God’s trademark. Down to go up, life from death, beauty from ugliness: the pattern is everywhere.

That familiar pattern is also a great gift to those who suffer disease and loss—the loss may remain, but good will come from it, and the good will be larger than the suffering it redeems. Our pain is not empty; we do not suffer in vain. When life strikes hard blows, what we do has value. Our God sees it.

A change in suffering’s character

The second gift is often missed, because it lives in salvation’s shadow. Amazing as the greatest of all gifts is, God the Son does more than save sinners. Jesus’ life and death also change the character of suffering, give it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty. Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly things, but the enterprise of living with them is not an ugly thing. God’s Son so decreed it when he gave himself up to torture and death.

Two facts give rise to that conclusion. First, Jesus is beautiful as well as good. Second, suffering is ugly as well as painful. Talk to those who suffer medical conditions like mine and you’ll hear this refrain: Even the best-hidden forms of pain and disease have a reality that is almost tactile, as though one could touch or taste them. And those conditions are foul, like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard or the smell of a cornered skunk. Some days, I feel as if I were wearing clothes soaked in sewage.

Some days—but not most days, thanks to the manner of Jesus’ life and death. Imagine Barack Obama putting on a bad suit or Angelina Jolie wearing an ugly dress. The suit wouldn’t look bad, and that dress wouldn’t be ugly. These are incredibly attractive people whose attractiveness spills over onto their clothing, changing its meaning and the way other people respond to it. If Obama or Jolie wear it, it’s a good-looking outfit. If they wear it often enough, it becomes a good-looking outfit even when you or I wear it. God’s Son did something similar by taking physical pain on his divine yet still-human person. He did not render pain itself beautiful. But his suffering made the enterprise of living with pain and illness larger and better than it had been before. He elevates all he touches. Just as his years of carpentry in Joseph’s shop lend dignity and value to all honest work, so too the pain he bore lends dignity and value to every pain-filled day human beings live.

The Shawshank Redemption is about a prisoner convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. That prisoner escapes by crawling through a sewer line until he’s outside the prison’s walls. The narrator describes the transaction this way: “He crawled through a river of [dung] and came out clean on the other side.” God the Son did that, and he did it for the likes of me—so that I, too, and many more like me, might come out clean on the other side. That truth doesn’t just change my life after I die. It changes my life here, now.

The God Who Remembers

The third gift is the most remarkable. Our God remembers even his most forgettable children. But that memory is not the dry, lifeless thing we feel when one or another old friend comes to mind. More like the passion one feels at the sight of a lover. When Jesus was dying, one of the two convicts crucified with him said this: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus responded by telling him that he would be in paradise that very day. As we use the word remember, that story sounds off, as though the thief on the cross and the Son of God were talking past each other.

The story sounds off because to us, remembrance merely means “recall”—I remember when I connect a student’s name to her face, or when I can summon up some fact or the image of some past event. That kind of remembrance is a sterile enterprise, lacking both action and commitment.

In the Bible, remembrance usually combines two meanings: first, holding the one who is remembered close in the heart, and second, acting on the memory. When God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember that he brought them out of Egypt, he is saying much more than “get your history right.” A better paraphrase would go like this: “Remember that I have loved you passionately. Remember that I have acted on that love. Hold tight to that memory, and act on it too.”

Job understood the concept. Speaking with God about what would follow his own death, Job utters these words: “You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made. Surely then you will count my steps but not keep track of my sin” (14:15-16). Notice how memory and longing are fused. Job longs to be free of his many pains, which occupy his mind like a sea of unwanted memories. God longs for relationship with Job, and Job knows it: hence, his belief that the Lord of the universe remembers each of his steps. He is the Lover who will not rest until his arms enfold the beloved. To Job, the curses Satan has sent his way are a mighty mountain that cannot be climbed, an enemy army that cannot be beaten. In the shadow of God’s love, those curses are at once puny and powerless.

Philosophers and scientists and law professors (my line of work) are not in the best position to understand the Christian story. Musicians and painters and writers of fiction are much better situated—because the Christian story is a story, not a theory or an argument, and definitely not a moral or legal code. Our faith is, to use C. S. Lewis’s apt words, the myth that became fact. Our faith is a painting so captivating that you cannot take your eyes off it. Our faith is a love song so achingly beautiful that you weep each time you hear it. At the center of that true myth, that painting, that song stands a God who does vastly more than remember his image in us. He pursues us as lovers pursue one another. It sounds too good to be true, and yet it is true. So I have found, in the midst of pain and heartache and cancer.”

William J. Stuntz, criminal justice professor at Harvard Law School, died March 15, 2011. He wrote this piece on suffering as an article for Christianity Today in 2009.


My favorite line? That is our God’s trademark. Down to go up, life from death, beauty from ugliness: the pattern is everywhere.

How is it that something so crazy can be so comforting? Somehow, it is.