SAVING PLACES, SPACES, AND PRACTICES
BREAKTHROUGH: The Practice of Feeling Pain Click here for audio
Job 42:1-6, II Corinthians 1:3-7 The Message
Pastor Donna Buell
Saving Places, Spaces, and Practices
BREAKTHROUGH: The Practice of Feeling Pain
What’s saving your life now? This was the question which led to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “An Altar in the World” – the book we have been exploring in our sermons throughout the fall. Taylor trusts in the Benedictine promise that if you can’t find God wherever you are — you won’t find God anywhere, and so as she reflected upon this question she found herself focusing on those every day activities and experiences in life that were allowing her to become more fully human. She once said in an interview: (see ReadtheSpirit.com)
What I’m talking about here is paying attention. If we really pay attention — that wall we think we see in front of us? That wall can open and turn out to be a thin place, a meeting place, an altar in the world — far different than the wall we thought was there.
Taylor believes that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world, and so she invites us to pay close attention to those every day real life experiences that have the potential of opening us to the saving presence of God. And today we are invited to consider the Practice of Feeling Pain.
I’d like you to take just a moment to think about all the different ways that people commonly react to or respond to the experience of pain.
Our instinctive response to pain is to flinch or to recoil or to pull away in an attempt to remove ourselves from the source of our pain and to protect ourselves from further harm. And that instinct is very helpful. But pain often lingers beyond its initial cause, and continues until healing is able to take place. Sometimes we try to ignore our pain or distract ourselves from it.
Depending upon the cause of the pain, we may try some Ben Gay, a heating pad or an ice pack. We may try to medicate our pain – using over the counter pain relievers or asking our doctor to prescribe something stronger. We may try to mask the pain with alcohol or other drugs. Or perhaps we will seek a more holistic approach, trying acupuncture, herbal remedies, yoga, meditation, counseling, even prayer! Many of these responses to pain are short term solutions, aimed at helping us cope with our pain, or not feel it at all.
When Taylor writes about the practice of feeling pain, she is not promoting the experience of pain as something we should be seeking out, but she is saying that when we do experience pain we should pay attention to it and to where it may lead us.
Taylor makes an important distinction between pain and suffering. Though we often use these words synonymously, scientifically speaking pain is something that originates in the body.
“it comes from swollen joints, fluid-filled lungs, damaged nerves, invading tumors…Suffering, on the other hand, happens in the mind. The mind decides what pain means and whether it is deserved. The mind notices who comes to visit and who does not. The mind remembers how good things used to be and are not likely to be again. The mind makes judgments, measures loss, takes blame, assigns guilt.” pg 161
The bodily definition of pain is somewhat limiting, for we also associate pain with experiences of significant loss in our lives. And the fact that we assigned this chapter to the Sunday of our All Saints Day remembrance reflects that association. Our lived experience is that physical, emotional and spiritual pain, suffering, loss and grief are all intertwined in our hearts and in our minds. And when we experience any of these kinds of pain our minds often try to seek meaning. And often that means laying responsibility for our pain, either at our own feet, or at the feet of another, or at the feet of God.
This search for meaning in the midst of suffering is part of what is explored in the Book of Job. When faithful Job experiences tragedy upon tragedy, he cries out to God. His wife tells him to curse God and die. Why would he even want to remain faithful to a God who would do such things? Job’s friends offer their own counsel. Surely he must have done something to deserve this. God’s judgments are always right. Job should go ahead and repent even if he can’t think of what it is he has done wrong. These friends are far more interested in defending God’s honor than they are in comforting Job.
But none of these answers are satisfying to Job. So Job goes on, chapter after chapter, directing one “Why me?” question after another at God. And in this he is in very good company. The Book of Psalms contains many Psalms of Lament in which the Psalmist cries out to God in the midst of both personal and communal pain and struggle, seeking answers, seeking help, seeking justice, seeking relief. I know that many of us have been lamenting, both personally and corporately, as we suffer through this election season. And many of us have our own personal “why me” lament stories, as well.
One Saturday morning, when I was about 5 years old, my mother was helping my sister Carol get ready for a birthday party. She washed Carol’s hair and set it with curlers and then put her under the big bonnet hairdryer. (I’m dating myself here, aren’t I?) Later, while she removed the curlers, my mom asked me to go into her bedroom and get the hairbrush from her dresser. So off I went running down the hall and into my parents’ bedroom. As I rounded the foot of the bed in my stocking feet I slipped on the hard wood floor and I ran smack dab into the corner of the dresser top, hitting just above my eye. My mom later described hearing the crash and my scream and seeing me run out into the living room holding my hand over my eye. When I finally allowed her to pull my hand away, the blood gushed out. Mom went into action. She grabbed a towel and held it to my eye, she called my dad to come home from work so he could take us to the emergency room, and she made arrangements for my sister to be picked up for her party. I can remember lying on my mother’s lap in the car on the way to the hospital. And I can remember lying in the ER while they put in stitches. What I don’t remember (but have been told numerous times) is that apparently, out of my deep sense of anguish, I cried out “Why? Why did this happen to me? Why didn’t it happen to Carol?!” Not one of my better moments.
But you know pain has a way of taking us down deep to a place that is very real, and not always very flattering. In a book called “Talking in the Dark: Praying When Life Doesn’t Make Sense,” pg. 42 Steve Harper tells a story about a well known United Methodist pastor and evangelist named Arnold Prater. In a sermon Prater once described a rather unrealistic pattern of prayer that had developed in his devotional life. Each day he would get up, go to his place of prayer, and begin one of those flowery pious prayers sprinkled liberally with Thee’s and Thou’s. “O Thou omnipotent God, who dwellest in splendor and who reignest in glory from age to age, and so on.” He said that even he could almost hear God drumming his fingers on the banister of heaven out of boredom. But one day Prater woke up with a two-Excedrin headache. He stumbled to his prayer place, and with his head in his hands said, “God…my head hurts!” And he said that in that moment he heard the voice of God deep in his soul saying “Well, Arnold—finally! Now you know how to pray.” In the face of pain he got real with God. And when he got real with God, God became real for him as well.
Barbara Brown Taylor had her own experience of getting real in the midst of pain. She had been pruning trees outside when she accidentally stuck a stick in her right eye. She went inside and tried to wash the pine bark out of her eye. She had her husband drive her to the ER where they examined her, put in a numbing agent and sent her home. When that wore off she took a bunch of aspirin and went to bed. But each time she woke up the pain was excruciating. Eventually she got up and stretched out in the bathtub and allowed warm water to wash over her eye, but that just made things worse. She writes:
“While the grandfather clock in the dining room tolled hour after hour, I prayed the kind of prayers I never thought I would pray. I began the kind of bargaining with God that I do not even believe in, and when that did not work I called God’s honor into question. I begged God to do something. I dared God to do something. Finally, close to dawn, I found myself turning away from the God in charge of pain removal toward the God who had stayed with me through the pain no matter what I said. By the time I saw an optometrist who told me I had a torn cornea, my midnight wrestling match was over. The pain had not only changed the way I prayed. It had also changed my ideas about the One to whom I prayed.” pg. 158
Pain dropped Taylor down to a place that was very real, and in that very real place she experienced the very real presence of God who was with her in the midst of her pain.
Pain and suffering are such a huge topic. In 30 years of ministry, including 10 years as a hospice chaplain, I have read a lot of resources on pain and grief, and I still find Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” to be one of the most helpful. Kushner’s book is not a theological treatise on suffering. He writes for a broad audience from his experience as a practicing Rabbi who has walked with countless people in times of pain and sorrow. But more importantly, he writes as a father whose son was diagnosed at the age of 3 with a disease called Progeria, which meant that his son Aaron never grew much beyond three feet in height, he had no hair on his head or body, he looked like a little old man while he was still a child, and he died just a few days short of his 14th birthday.
Kushner writes this book as one who has been there. He deals in a very real way with the very real pain and suffering that people experience in this life. And he shares what he has come to understand through his own experience about how our misperceptions about God, and the misperceptions of others about God, can add immeasurably to our suffering.
He writes that all those “why me” questions in the book of Job are not really theological questions at all, but are cries of pain – they are laments, and that what Job needs from his friends is not their answers but their compassion. A colleague of mine once made a similar point when she was speaking at a forum on grief and loss. She said that it is very natural for us, when we are hurting, to ask those “why” questions. They are a part of our effort to make sense of our experience and to ascribe meaning to our pain. And for a time, they may help to cushion the intensity of our pain.
But she said it is something else entirely when others try to impose their sense of meaning on our painful experiences. Anyone who has had a significant experience of pain or loss probably knows what I’m talking about. You know, all those well meaning people who say things like, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” or “God must have needed another angel in heaven” or “it’s all part of God’s plan” or even worse “your prayers mustn’t have been good enough.” If you’ve been on the receiving end of these kinds of pious statements, then you probably know that it usually just makes you feel worse. And like Job’s wife you may start wondering why anyone would want anything to do with such a God. What we need in moments of pain and grief is not someone who glosses over our pain with pious answers. What we need is someone who will acknowledge our very real experience of pain and loss, and come alongside of us as a companion. And often the very best companions are those who have been down the road of pain and loss before us. That’s what Paul is writing about in those verses from II Corinthians. He is saying that when we have experienced God’s comfort and consolation in the midst of our own troubles, God will often bring us alongside someone else who is hurting so that we might offer them that same comfort and consolation from God.
Yes, pain does have a way of bringing us up short, and it can drop us down to a place that is very real, and it is often there that we gain a whole new perspective – seeing a way through where before we saw only a wall. For Prayer and Job, Taylor and Kushner it was about letting go of those faulty perceptions of God as the one who needs fancy prayers and pious words, as the one who is the cause of our suffering, or as the one who will remove our suffering. It was about opening up in a new way to the God who is with us in the midst of our suffering, and who inspires us to come alongside others with that same spirit of compassion and kindness.
At the end of her chapter on the Practice of Feeling Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “for those willing to stay awake, pain remains a reliable altar in the world, a place to discover that a life can be as full of meaning as it is of hurt. The two have never canceled each other out…” I’d like to close with a powerful poem which shares this perspective.
Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.