Facing Suffering – Br. Curtis Almquist
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For several years prior to my coming to the Monastery I was a parish priest. A number of us pastors in the area took a monthly rotation as a night chaplain in the local community hospital. During these night shifts, we chaplains would spend most of our time on-call in the intensive care unit and in the emergency room, helping care for very sick, sometimes traumatized patients, family members, and the medical staff. On more than a few occasions I recall standing beside a hospital gurney that was weighted down by a tragedy-in-the-making, and my having little or nothing to say to the patient or loved ones or to the staff. What we often shared in those moments were tears, but I had few, if any, words. What’s to be said? Less rather than more, and for several reasons.People in trauma need our presence and our prayer rather than our preaching. We will bear a much more comforting witness to someone facing deep loss by simply being with them, and in-so-doing, to represent God Emmanuel – God with us – by our being with them. Not by our words, but by our presence. And we let the words come, first from them. They may need to speak words of rage or sighs of grief, or questions, or crushing doubt. By our presence, by our being with them and bearing this with them, they may find the courage to cry out, perhaps cry out to God, uncensored, unrestrained, like a child in great need. Like a child of God. The question is not whether God is with this person, with these people. The question is rather, how is God with them? They will need to discover this on their own time, in their own way, and in their own words. We do well, most days in most ways, to listen rather than define or deduce what God is doing in and with someone facing enormous loss. Before we speak, there’s a prior invitation to simply be with another person – to listen to them and to help in the most practical of ways – and in so doing to re-present God Emmanuel, God with them in their grief and loss.
Our first lesson appointed for today, from the Book of Job, gives us the best and worst example of this. The narrator of this book, whose voice we hear at the outset, says that “there was a man… whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright.”[i] We hear Job himself speak of his own integrity: “Is there any wrong on my tongue [or with my life]?[ii] And yet, Job suffers appallingly. One disaster happens after another. When the disasters begin to overtake him like the tide coming in from the perfect storm – Job’s losing his livestock and his livelihood and his family and his health – his first reaction is a calm acceptance; he’s very faith-full. Job blesses God not only for what God has given but also for what God has taken away.[iii]
But then something happens by chapter 3. Job is at the end of his tether. “… Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said: “Let the day perish in which I was born….” “Why did I not die at birth?” Here is a mind in turmoil, a sense of bitterness and anger and desolation, a terrible sense of isolation from God, even a sense of persecution from God. Job makes no attempt to suppress his hostility toward God for what has happened to him. Job insists that he will “speak in the anguish of [his] spirit” and “complain in the bitterness of his soul.”[iv] And he does, he really does.
Job goes through the agony of trying to make sense of his suffering – why bad things are happening to a good person. He then suffers even more from his rather bumbling friends. He endures the bad counsel and presumptuous judgment from those who feign to know him the best: apparently his closest friends. As Mark Twain would say, they are “bound to inflict good” on Job, their being all-too-eager to give their interpretation of what God is doing to him and why.[v] For Job, his friends’ preaching is unsolicited and unhelpful and untimely and ultimately proven to be untrue
It’s significant that the passage appointed for today from the Book of Job is from when he has come into a clearing. We hear Job say, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; 26and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, 27whom I shall see on my side…” Here Job sounds absolutely certain – “for I know that my Redeemer lives” – but a few chapters prior to this, he did not know this; he was absolutely despairing. And a few chapters after this he’s absolutely enraged again. And so for us. It takes most of us a good long while – good days and bad days; more good days and more bad days – to make sense of suffering: our own suffering and the suffering of others.
In the presence of someone else’s suffering, listen more, say less. There is an ancient theological tradition, apophatic theology, that attempts to understand God in terms of what one cannot or should not say, especially when we face the inexplicable. The apophatic tradition – what we cannot say about God – weaves its way through Christian mysticism.[vi] What is very “practical” about this mystical, apophatic tradition is understanding its profundity when you face unexplainable loss, suffering, and death: suffering in your own life or someone you love or know. There may be many things about God, at that moment, which cannot be said for sure. Someone’s (maybe your own?) “belief system” may have absolutely collapsed. And yet, often times there still is something left of the God’s presence evident and resilient in the soul. I have seen this so many times in a hospital emergency room. I saw this yesterday in a news account from the Philippines: a woman and her family who had lost almost everything in the terrible typhoon. Her plea was, “Pray for us!” Why, we could ask? What in the world is left of God in the soul of this devastated woman, this child of God? I don’t know, but clearly something. Something of God very real, something to be listened to and reverenced. She desperately expressed a plea for practical help, but she also asked for something more: for our prayer. That desire for prayer, that longing for God, is coming from within her. It’s coming from God’s presence, not God’s absence, but God’s presence within her. But for this dear woman – and many thousands of others in the Philippines and in so many other places on this earth – it will likely take some time to make sense out of how God is present. It is very difficult to see clearly through tears.
The Book of Job is not censored. The Book of Job gives us every encouragement to feel our feelings and to ask our questions and to cry out from our heart to God. A powerful witness to us, the Book of Job. If we only had the book of Job, we would have a bold encouragement. But as Christians, we do have something more. All of what is not readily explainable about the suffering that fills us and surrounds us needs to be seen from the perspective of the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is a prism through which to see our own life. By our looking to the cross of Christ, we certainly do not avoid suffering and death. By our looking to the cross of Christ, we are not guaranteed any more answers than Jesus knew, even to the point of his crying out from his own cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[vii] By looking to the cross of Christ, we are certainly not guaranteed that we will be liked or understood by others. (Jesus endlessly talked about enemies and the need for forgiveness.) What we are promised from the cross is that in our suffering, Christ is with us. That we are not left to hang alone: God is Emmanuel, God is with us. Our being created in the image of God means for us as Christians our being re-formed into the image of Christ… who leads us to the cross.
Most all of us probably have a complex life story which includes no small amount of suffering. Take the witness that Job gives us to wrestle with it, cry out with it, be angry or sad or still with it. And take the reminder of Jesus that we not bear it alone. Momentarily, as we turn our focus to the altar, we will hear Jesus’ words repeated around his broken body and shed blood, “Do this in remembrance of me.” “Do this in remembrance of me.” What is the antecedent to “this”? What is the “this”? The “this” is your life, the life you’ve been given to live. “Do this” – that is, “live your life” – in remembrance of Jesus.” That does not answer so many questions about suffering in this life, suffering in the past or present or future. And yet for some of us, perhaps for many of us here, it may be enough of an answer to keep us coming back for that last word on suffering, found in the Book of Revelation, where we hear how God “will shelter [us] with his presence. [We] shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike [us] nor any scorching heat… and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”[viii] And in the meantime – and sometimes it is a very mean time – there are so very few answers, and even more questions. In Christ we have the assurance of God’s real presence in the best of times and the worst of times, we are not alone. You are not alone.
[i] Job 1:1.
[ii]. Job 6:30; 9:15.
[iii] Job 1:21; 2:10.
[iv] Job 7:11.
[v] “Bound to inflict good” is a line attributed to Mark Twain.
[vi] See the tradition surrounding Dionysius the Areopagite, a fifth-century monk, in Mystica Theologia, and from the 14th century writings, The Cloud of Unknowing, and the Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, who referred to apophatic theology as “the understanding of not understanding.” A very fine contemporary book is The Inner Eye of Love; Mysticism and Religion by William Johnston (Harper & Row).
[vii] Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34.
[viii] Revelation 7:15-17.
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Wow. I needed this sermon today. At times, I have been called to be with and minister to someone who was going through a season like Job, and at times (perhaps even right now) I have suffered through a season when I’ve felt very much like Job myself. Thank you, Brother Curtis, for the reminder that no matter what the situation, God is always there, always with us.
Fear, despair, and anger are all powerful forces, but knowing we will never be abandoned feels stronger, at least today it does
My son is suffering. His life fueled by millenial anger. He is 24. He is worried that I am living under great deception. “How can I possibly believe someone rose from the dead? How does the horrendous hypocrisy of the religions make this world any better?” He is highly educated (our fault), no job (our fault) with little empathy (our fault). I listen carefully, sometimes add words and at the end I tell him I love him. The evangelical zeal of his disbelief is constant, almost like a headache that must prove aspirin will not help without trying it. He wants me to prove he is wrong. So, I carry aspirin and thank God I have an inquisitive son, and hope that our bond of love is enough, the power of God is enough, the joy in our relationship is enough, that being present to listen is enough.
Dear Rhode Thought about you a lot yesterday and your struggle with your son. I think it helps to affirm people where we can in there struggles and you son is at least being open and honest with you about what he thinks and feels. I agree with him that there is a lot of hypocrisy in all religions but having faith in God has helped give many people hope and peace in their lives down through the ages. Great good has been done in the name of God as well as great evil. Who we believe God to be is very critical because we live out of our beliefs. Our theology does matter!! And yes the resurrection is indeed an outrageous event but if it is true it absolutely changes everything. There is hope and peace in the face of hopeless and devastating circumstances. My prayer for you is to live your life in such a way of peace hope and love that your son will see the reality of Jesus’ resurrection in you and want what you have. A challenge for all of us as believers !! And to remind ourselves daily that Gods love never fails !!! Our love does. Thank God for the gospel that we have been born again by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead ( I Peter 1:3) and through His indwelling spirit God will give us in our lives what we don’t have on our own.
Simply Thank you.
Praise be to God whom is ever present, even in the darkest situation. God is never absent.
Thanks be to God, we are not alone. Job inspires me. He hung on through
“thick and thin,” even though he was surrounded by the enemy and false
friends. But he declared, “Though he slay me, yet will I serve Him.”
Thanks, Bro. Curtis, for your wise words !