The Purpose of Pain

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.  (Colossians 1:24)

We live in an culture where countless resources (time, talent, and money) are spent trying to escape suffering.  Whether it be the pharmaceutical industry manufacturing drugs to relieve pain, the entertainment industry developing technology to relieve boredom, or the lottery and casino industries creating a false illusion of relief from financial hardships – we are constantly sold the idea that suffering (in all forms) is a terrible enemy to be avoided at all costs.

The Christian view of suffering runs counter to the world’s.  Paul says he rejoices in his suffering.  We don’t know everything that Paul suffered – but from what is revealed, we know that he suffered profoundly – physically, emotionally, relationally, even spiritually.

Yet, Paul saw purpose in his pain.  He believed his personal suffering benefited his brothers and sisters in the church, strengthening the body of Christ.  His willingness to choose the hard road of faith in spite of his suffering has been an inspiration to others throughout the ages who would likewise suffer much.

I think of the suffering a good friend is facing right now as she agonizes over the decision to choose the familiar, seemingly comfortable path of addiction or the long, arduous road of recovery.  I pray for her, and her friends and family who are suffering with her and making choices themselves whether their support is investing in her recovery or contributing to her addiction.

I pray that the pain we are experiencing now would have purpose – that it would strengthen us individually as believers, draw us closer to the body of Christ, and lead us to a deeper relationship with God.

A world of pain and love by Marco Piunti

“A world of pain and love by Marco Piunti” from  Nina Kassai in Pencil + Paper + Idea

Early Morning Meditations from Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

I was up early this morning – too early.  I was awakened by one of my “vocation dreams” where I imagine doing something new and different in my life and then wake myself up analyzing if it is possible.

Today, there was no going back to sleep, so I decided to look for a decent documentary on Netflix.  It took some searching, but I found one called Merton: A Film Biography.

Thomas Merton was many things in his life.  A little French boy of artistic parents, orphaned by age 15.  A bright, yet carousing student at Cambridge, then Columbia.  A Roman Catholic convert, received into the Cistercian order at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky.  A hard-working Trappist monk devoted to the contemplative life of prayer.  A poet and philosopher who sought to bring healing to a desperately wounded society.  A hermit who found in Buddhist writings and friendships companionship for a Christian walk.  A spiritual pilgrim who bridged the distance between East and West.

There have been many things written by and about Thomas Merton.  To dig deeper, I encourage you to visit the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University (I think I may take a pilgrimage myself there soon).  For today, I simply want to share with you a few of Merton’s own words (and a prayer) to challenge and inspire you – as they have me.

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.  (source unknown)

The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.    (from The Seven Storey Mountain)

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.    (from Thoughts in Solitude)

(photo of Thomas Merton from Wesley Ramey in People I Admire)

Religion, Responsibility, and Writing in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

Cat's Cradle

I finished Cat’s Cradle last night in my journey through 1960s literature.  I don’t know if it brought me closer to my destination, but it was certainly provided me a wild and thrilling ride.  Before I move on to other works, I want to reflect briefly on three more passages of the book that demonstrate its depth.

First, when “Papa” – San Lorenzo’s fiercely anti-Bokonist dictator is dying an agonizing death, he demands Bokonist last rites.  Only his former Nazi doctor is willing to risk administering them (since the penalty for doing so would be “the hook”).  The narrator asks the doctor –

“Are you a Bokonist?”

“I agree with one Bokonist idea.  I agree that all religions, including Bokonism, are nothing but lies.”

“Will this bother you as a scientist?”  I inquired, “to go through a ritual like this?”

“I am a very bad scientist.  I will do anything to make a human being feel better, even if it’s unscientific.  No scientist worthy of the name could say such a thing.”

Earlier, the narrator had asked someone if anything was sacred in Bokonism and the answer was “only human beings.”  Though Bokonist teachings are based on self-proclaimed lies, the principal Bokonist value (honoring individual human life) is one that the heroic characters of the novel portray.

Next, Frank Hoenikker (son of Felix – one of the fathers of the atomic bomb), after being selected to become the next President of San Lorenzo, manages to pawn off the job on the narrator.  Reflecting on this, the narrator writes –

And I realized with chagrin that my agreeing to be boss had freed Frank to do what he wanted to do more than anything else, to do what his father had done: to receive honors and creature comforts while escaping human responsibilities.  He was accomplishing this by going down a spiritual oubliette.

An oubliette is literally a dungeon from which there is no escape.  The Latin root for the word is the same root for the word “oblivion”.  The narrator recognizes here, only too late, that to have power without accountability is a deadly recipe for any individual and for the society around him.

Finally, Vonnegut plugs the value of literature through a conversation between the narrator, Dr. Julian Castle (a humanitarian who founded and operated the San Lorenzo hospital) and his son Philip who wrote a history of the island before opening a hotel.  Philip ponders if writers should go on a general strike “until mankind comes to its senses”.  The narrator responds passionately –

“When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.”

I turned to Castle the elder.  “Sir, how does as man die when he’s deprived of the consolations of literature?”

“In one of two ways,” he said, “putrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.”

When we lack good literature, either our hearts become stone or our minds turn to mush.

So the message to those of you who write is… keep making beautiful sense as fast as you can, for the sake of humanity.

(image “Cat’s Cradle” from Megan Van Horn in To Read)

The Death (and ultimate life) of Ivan Ilyich

In the eleventh post of Christmas, I truly give to you…

the death of ivan ilych

Leo Tolstoy’s short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich is at times an excruciating book to read.  Ivan Ilyich’s callous social climbing, care-free lifestyle and heart-less unconcern for his family are difficult to bear.  When he becomes chronically ill, one almost cheers for his payback, but we are made to instead endure his unending complaints and cries for relief.  At one point in his suffering, he scolds his wife –

“For Christ’s sake let me die in peace!” he said.

She would have gone away, but just then their daughter came in and went up to say good morning. He looked at her as he had done at his wife, and in reply to her inquiry about his health said dryly that he would soon free them all of himself. They were both silent and after sitting with him for a while went away.

“Is it our fault?” Lisa said to her mother. “It’s as if we were to blame! I am sorry for papa, but why should we be tortured?”

It seems nothing can be done to relieve Ivan Ilyich’s suffering (and insufferability) and it only grows steadily worse.  As the end draws near, he spends three full days simply calling out a monosyllabic cry, “Oh!”

He is lost – alone – in his struggle.  But just when it seems he will go to his grave suffering alone, his neglected son enters the room.  He becomes aware of his son’s presence.

At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.

“Yes, I am making them wretched,” he thought. “They are sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.” He wished to say this but had not the strength to utter it. “Besides, why speak? I must act,” he thought. with a look at his wife he indicated his son and said: “Take him away…sorry for him…sorry for you too….” He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

In his deathbed confession – to his family, and to God – Ivan Ilyich finds the grace to die in peace.  The pain is still there, but he doesn’t focus on it.  He chooses instead to take the self-less path of gratitude for those who surround him, who care for him, who make it possible for him not to die alone.

As a pastor, I have seen many people at the verge of death and I’ve seen some as they died.  Some die peacefully.  Others resist.  It isn’t always the case that those who are right with God and others die a more peaceful death.  Sometimes the suffering is still agonizing.  But it makes a big difference when we can clear our slate by asking for and accepting Christ’s forgiveness and making the most of whatever time we have remaining.

I like the way one prayer I’ve said puts it,

Give us your grace, O God, to live as those prepared to die, that we may go forth to live so that, living or dying, we may always walk with you.

How about you?  Are you ready to die so you can fully live?

(image “The Death of Ivan Ilych” from  Dottie B., some rights reserved)

*****

– In the first post of Christmas, I truly gave to you…. “God is With Us (a Christmas Story based on Matthew 1.18-2.12)

– In the second post of Christmas, I truly gave to you… “Assaulting a Felon with a Fruitcake.”

– In the third post of Christmas, I truly gave to you… “Some of the Best Christmas Blog Posts for 2012

– In the fourth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you… “I Wonder as I Wander

– In the fifth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Be More Like a Child at Christmas (and beyond)

– In the sixth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Five Favorite Movies for the Christmas Season

– In the seventh post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “From India to Indiana: My New E-Pal

– In the eighth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “What Sam Found in His Backpack After Break (A Prompted Poem)

– In the ninth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “The Precise Dilemma: A Book Review

– In the tenth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Potentially Praiseworthy Poems Posted on WordPress