Series on Suffering #5 – Power Aid

hallway with suffering quote

Suffering #5: Power Aid

Who are we kidding? We can be as intellectual and objective about suffering as we want. We can read journal articles about it and its effects on the body and brain. We can sit in climate controlled coffee shops and talk about our suffering as if it’s somehow separate from us. We can listen in on sermons or lectures or speeches on suffering in the world. But at the end of the idea, the article, the cup of coffee, the sermon we come home to it. At the end of the day we put our heads on our pillows and the sorrow rises like heart burn. There’s no escaping our suffering. There’s no objectifying it away. Suffering stays.

And suffering hurts. It hurts badly. As cruel as this sounds, suffering even seems tailor-made to our personality and our circumstances. A terrible diagnosis might devastate one person who doesn’t really feel the devastations of unemployment like another might. But another person unemployed agonizes with it: the indignities, the shame, the financial stretching and scrimping, the hopelessness. You might be able to shake off conflict at work but for me that same conflict simmers inside and makes me physically nauseated. Suffering hurts each person uniquely. And each person uniquely suffers.

Whatever else we might say about suffering we also need to say this. As horrifying as suffering is, in the midst of it, we are not left without resources.

Years ago I discovered a powerful little nugget of a verse hidden in St Paul’s letter captured in the short little book of Colossians (chapter one, verse eleven).

We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need.

Read it again.


God has dedicated all his glorious power to our ability to endure and our capacity to be patient while we persevere.

I have argued with God over this point. I have protested with tears. I have pounded my fists on his chest over the fact that he’s committed all his power to us being able to endure. Why couldn’t he have put his power behind my happiness? Or my ability to serve guests sweetly? Or my performance at my job? Or my energy levels with my children? Why does he put so much stake in my endurance?

The fact of the matter is that the very word, endurance, implies something that needs to be endured. We are up against circumstances that need to be outrun. We are up against pain that needs to be outlasted.  According to the dictionary, endurance is the ability to deal with pain or suffering that continues for a long time; it’s the quality of continuing for a long time; the ability to be able to do something difficult for a very long time. It’s a long word with even longer implications. Why does endurance matter so much?

Another little New Testament letter, this one from James, answers that question. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.  So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.

A fully developed ‘endurance’ makes us perfect and complete. Or said another way, our completion comes from a vibrantly mature ‘endurance’. (It’s spiritual math. If y=x then x=y!)While our faith might be tested in the hallways of suffering, it is also true that we learn to endure in those same corridors. And endurance grows us up. It matures us. It strengthens us. It perfects us.

That explains God the Almighty, the All-Powerful one’s commitment to my endurance. He is my Holy Father and he longs for me to grow and develop; to mature in healthy ways. The Father takes me for my annual spiritual wellness check up to the Great Physician, who also happens to be His Son. The Divine Doctor measures my height and weight. The Father waits with bated breath until the Great Physician declares over me, “She’s growing well…..developmentally she’s right on track!” And the Father smiles and sighs with pleasure. He already knew that. All his glorious power was strengthening me, giving me all the endurance I needed, all the patience I required. My endurance and patience levels have grown as a result.

All God’s glorious power strengthens to endure, to be patient, to persevere, to stick it out. At the end of the well-intended sermon, the on-line article, the meaningful blog post, the cup of coffee with a well-meaning friend, we still carry our suffering with us. At the end of the day, when we lay our heads down on our pillows, our own devastatingly painful and present suffering lays down next to us. There is no escaping it. But know this: We aren’t left to our own devices. Bolstering up that pillow is all the glorious power of God! We rest in the assurance, the confidence, the very real reality that he is behind us, supporting us, strengthening us.

While it’s true that suffering stays….so does God and with him, all of his glorious power!

We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable…

Picture Credit – Word Art by Marilyn R. Gardner

Series on Suffering #4 – Loneliness, A Type of Suffering

Urban - Loneliness

Loneliness – A Type of Suffering* by Robynn

Over the years I’ve been graced with some very precious friends. This past summer I said good-bye to two of them. One is a friend with whom I share a great deal of history. We’ve been through deep suffering together. We’ve laughed a lot and cried even more over the years. The other is a newer friend but we’ve walked miles together and logged many conversations of significance.

Both are good friends. And I miss them.

Saying goodbye again reminds me of the sting of loneliness. As everyone has, I’ve endured seasons of deep loneliness. I’ve felt misunderstood, empty, alone. I used to dread loneliness. It felt dark and claustrophobic. I felt isolated. I felt sadness and pain. I hated loneliness. But lately I’ve come to recognize Loneliness as a generous benefactor. Loneliness greets me in the morning with strange and unusual mercies. She lingers in the afternoon and sits with me on the sofa and she offers me presents.

Loneliness comforts me with the reality that she cannot destroy me. I live on, even in her company. That’s reassuring—because I used to feel that she would be my undoing, my destruction, my soul’s demise. Now I know differently.

Loneliness is a type of suffering and suffering has the capacity to transform me. It produces character. It gives way to endurance. It yields to faith. Those are sweet and generous gifts.

Loneliness highlights my need. She gives me my emptiness. This is a good thing. I recognize my empty spaces and I have the opportunity to turn to God with my soul in my hands, my heart on my sleeve. This helps me see that God can really be my True Soul Friend. I can experience His Presence. Loneliness gave me that.

She gives me my humanity. She connects me to millions of others around the globe who are displaced, afraid, betrayed, abandoned. Loneliness whispers, “see you are not alone”. The pain that she brings also reminds me that I’m still alive. And I’m more fully human for having encountered her.

Loneliness shows me her ability to diminish when I take my eyes off her. She gets smaller in stature when I don’t focus or fixate on her. Conversely she grows enormous and ominous when I stare at her, when I dote on her, when I nurse her with my self-pity. She’s magical that way. That’s another of her mysterious gifts.

Perhaps the sweetest thing of all that Loneliness gives is the opportunity to receive random moments of connection with others as gifts in themselves. I can receive a deep conversation in the church lobby. I can enjoy a joke with a stranger in the grocery store. I can marvel at the various people God has given me –a kindly neighbor, a faithful postman, a humorous barista–and I can receive them with thanks. I don’t have to demand from them a forced friendship, a deeper commitment. I can walk away and be grateful for the moment of connection, the sacred spot of community. Loneliness gave me that.

I’ve just said goodbye, with sobs and tears, to my friend Ellen. She’s returning to India. And I’m staying on here. I’ve bid Ellen farewell and in the same space, filling the same place she leaves– Loneliness steps in. I also just said goodbye to Jill. Jill’s moving to a place I’ve never even visited. She’s going on new adventures without me. I’ve said farewell to Jill too and Loneliness swoops in. I’d rather Ellen and Jill had stayed. But I’ve learned to not resist Loneliness.

Thank you Loneliness. You’ve been almost kind to me.

*This piece was first published under The Gifts of Loneliness in August 2012.

Picture Credit: Word art Marilyn R. Gardner

Series on Suffering #3: “We’re guaranteed it!”

Suffering #3: We’re guaranteed it! by Robynn

Suffering 3

Entitlement is an interesting and pervasive attitude these days.  I deserve to feel good about myself. I deserve wealth. I deserve happiness. I deserve respect. I deserve a massage, a night out, another drink, a bowl of ice cream, a raise at work, an easier life.

Jesus had an opinion about this idea of entitlement. There were two brothers –friends of his, part of his close circle, men who had heard him teach, men who had hung out with him– who approached Jesus with a simple request. Could he do them a favour? When everything settles down and, Jesus, you are sitting on your glorious throne, if it wouldn’t be too much to ask, could we please sit on either side of you? One on your left, one on your right? We can sort out who sits on which side later….but could we? Please?

I can imagine Jesus just shaking his head when he replies, You don’t have a clue what you’re asking.

Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with? (Mark 10:38)

It’s easy, as a reader of this story, to be pretty hard on these two blokes! Who did they think they were? Had they been listening at all when Jesus taught on humility and the hard road? They had seen him up close. They’d been camping with him. They’d gone out for drinks with him. They followed him and watched while he healed kindly, when he welcomed little children.

But maybe they were a little like me.

I once met with Father Albert at Conception Abbey for spiritual direction. I was on a three day retreat and I had signed up to meet with a director. Lowell and I were at a cross roads. I needed guidance. During our time together, tucked into the middle of the conversation about mothering and gifting and ambition, I admitted, “Father Albert, I want to be famous!” He threw back his head and guffawed. Apparently no one had ever said that out loud to him before.

If that comment was written in the gospels, readers would judge me. They’d read it with an obnoxious tone of voice. They’d roll their eyes and mumble, Who does she think she is? What does she have to offer? How on earth would she ever be famous?

But what the reader wouldn’t know is my heart in it. I wasn’t motivated by fame and the quest to be a celebrity. I longed to use my gifts, to teach publicly, to call groups of people to Jesus. And doing that to large crowds seemed somehow more efficient. As ignoble as it sounds, and really is at a deep level, I thought I would like to be famous. It was ridiculous then when I said it and it’s even more ridiculous now looking back on it. I’ll never be that. Nor do I want that any more.

My point is it’s easy to judge these two brothers. Jesus doesn’t. He does highlight their naiveté. They don’t know what they are asking. He can’t commit those two chairs to them. It doesn’t work that way. They aren’t entitled to them. The only thing he can guarantee is that they will suffer. The only thing they are entitled to is the “bitter cup of suffering”.

Several weeks ago I wrote a piece on longings. The Jesus story I cited was one that comes right after this particular one in the St Mark’s gospel. Bartimaeus the blind man, when Jesus asks him what can I do for you, responds, I want to see. Here when Jesus asks the two brothers what can I do for you, they ask for positions or roles. It’s an intriguing contrast. The blind man wants to see. The brothers want to get ahead. Jesus loves to give sight to the blind. Bartimaeus walks away seeing. Jesus doesn’t work in the advancement department. He doesn’t promote or demote. The only thing he guarantees is suffering, pain, agony.

The kingdom of God turns everything upside down. You want an exemption? You want to be removed from the circus and given an honorable place to sit down? Sorry…that doesn’t happen. Jesus goes on to further articulate. Kingdom rules for advanced placement include suffering. Kingdom rules for leadership include serving.  Kingdom rules for being first include being last. Kingdom rules for getting good service include attending to others. Kingdom rules for the good life mean laying down your life, dying to yourself.

These two brothers were Jesus’ friends. He wasn’t being harsh or unkind when he promised them suffering. He was speaking to their reality. They would surely suffer. And he would be with them in it, And lo, I am with you always. As would the Holy Comforter be, whom he would later send.

As horrendous as this sounds, we are all entitled….to suffering. I’m not saying that we deserve to suffer. Heaven forbid! This is not the life we were created for! But I am saying there are no other true guarantees in life. We will suffer, every one of us. Suffering will happen. But we do not need to suffer alone. The Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, joins us in our pain. He waits for us there, quietly, in the hallways of hardship ready to carry our burdens.

Series on Suffering #2 – “A Container for an Ocean of a God”

Suffering an ocean of a God

Suffering : A container for an Ocean of a God! by Robynn. Find all Robynn’s posts here. Find a quiet spot with a cup of tea or coffee to read this one. You’ll be glad you took the time….


When I was 9 and she was 8, in the quiet of a boarding room, while helping each other make a bed, I asked Amy Jo Inniger if she’d be my best friend. She said no. I was heartbroken but I accepted the rejection bravely. A year later she asked me if I remembered the question I had asked her a year before. Of course I did. “The answer,” she said, “is now yes!”

We were kindred spirit friends of the Anne Shirley and Diana Barry variety. She was the wind beneath my wings. When I graduated from high school a year ahead of her she loyally wrote me each week. When she ended up at Wheaton College and I was in the middle of the desolate Canadian prairies we made a way to see each other. She took the train up. I drove down (twenty-four hours straight with a brother and another friend!). She was in our wedding. I was in hers. She and her husband followed us to India and stayed in our town for nearly six months. Amy Jo was in the delivery room when Connor was born. She sang over him his first lullaby. She crocheted his first blanket and matching hat. Eventually her and her beloved husband found themselves in the slums of New Delhi living and working among the poor. Her house was the size of some king size beds. She cooked as the poor did, over a one burner stove. She washed clothes as they did, under the tap. Every Thursday they’d escape to a nicer part of town and stay one night in their “team center”. Every Thursday she’d call me on the phone.

A prayer letter we wrote in January 2000 tells what happened:

                When I was 29 and Amy Jo was 28, I stood by her hospital bed and watched her enraptured face as she saw her baby daughter for the first time. It was 11 pm, 6 hours after her surgery. The hospital was asleep and quiet. Amy had awakened and asked to see her baby. A nurse and I wheeled baby Kiran Hope’s cot down three floors to the Neuro ICU. When Amy focused on my face she smiled in recognition. When she saw the baby she beamed. “Oh Kiran, you’re so pretty.” She listened with pride as I told her about her new daughter, how healthy she was, how she had scored a 10 on the Apgar test. “Kiran, I’m so sorry that I can’t be with you these first few days,” she apologized, “but I’ll have the rest of my life to make it up to you.”

                Those were some of the last words Amy Jo ever spoke. She slipped into a coma at four the next morning and died four days later.

                The symptoms were sudden and simple: an intense migraine that started on November 11th. After pregnancy related causes were ruled out she was referred to a neurologist. The first MRI was done on November 27th and was inconclusive. Further tests, done on the 28th and the 29th revealed she had a large malignant brain tumor. On November 30th at 1:30pm they began two operations, first a C-section and then brain surgery. Kiran Hope was born at 1:45pm. Amy Jo came out of the OR at 5:10 pm. I had the blessing and privilege of introducing her to the little girl she had longed for years later that night.

                Amy Jo was a loyal kindred-spirit friend. She loved Jesus and wanted to be like Him. All she ever really wanted was that He be glorified. She was convinced that it was more important to Be than to Do. She was frugal and enjoyed simplicity. Little things were Big treats for her. She loved beauty and colour and texture and saw it all around her, in vegetable carts, bright saris and children’s faces. She was a well read, intelligent woman with opinions that would have shocked some! She was extremely uncompetitive and couldn’t hold her own at Scrabble for the world! She was generous and wanted those around her to be happy.

                I loved her. And the missing ache is still quite sore.

Amy Jo died. Even now as I type those words, it’s still so hard to believe.

Understandably, those were hard days. It didn’t make any sense. God had every opportunity to answer the prayers of hundreds, maybe even thousands who prayed. We asked Him to heal Amy Jo, to restore her to life, to give Kiran the mother she deserved. But God didn’t come through. For months afterwards my faith was shaken. I couldn’t understand it all. We had prayed. Emails went pouring out soliciting prayer from literally around the world. Mega churches in South Korea prayed in unison, smaller groups of more reserved people prayed together in the UK. They prayed in Pakistan, they prayed in Canada and the US, they prayed in Germany. And we prayed in India, fervently, sincerely, desperately. But still God did not heal. And Amy Jo died.

Months later Lowell preached a sermon that I hated. He entitled it Who Forgot to Pray for James? The text was from the book detailing the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12, “About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had James killed with a sword. When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. Then he imprisoned him…. while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him”. Most of us know the story: the prayers of the church swayed God and He arranged for Peter’s miraculous deliverance! But was not the church also praying for James? Is there any reason to think they weren’t? Of course they were. Believers are being persecuted, the faithful rise up with prayer and power to beseech the Great God of the Universe to put an end to it. It’s what the church does! There is every reason to believe that the believers also prayed for James and others who were equally brutally treated, and yet God allowed James to be murdered and Peter to walk free. It doesn’t make any sense. Who can know how God figures these things out?

During that sermon Lowell used an illustration that communicated powerfully to my battered faith. He explained correctly why I don’t like swimming in the ocean: there are living things lurking beneath the surface, the waves are unpredictable and splash my face, it’s cold and deep, there are undertows and pulls that frighten, it’s salty and sandy and alive.  I do not like swimming in the ocean. I much prefer a swimming pool, a heated pool at that. The temperature is controlled. You can enter at your pleasure either the deep end or the shallow end. You can go in as far as you like and then climb back out. Blow up a floating device and float on the top if you choose! The bottom is level and smooth. There are no surprises. Nothing lives in a swimming pool.

And that’s the kind of God I prefer as well: one that is controlled and moderate; a God who I can measure and understand. I can enter His depths but only as far as I am comfortable. However that’s not the kind of God we have. Our God is an ocean of a God. He is alive and dangerous. There are forces at work below His surface. He alone controls the depths, the sprays, the splashes of His personhood. He woos us to the bottom and the water may appear murky and mysterious. Our God is wild and untamable. He is expansive and unpredictable. When we say he is Holy, we mean he is strange and weird and we do well to take our shoes off. The ground is Holy and the Water is deep.

After his horrid sermon Lowell asked that we sing a particular song. The words to that song, now old and rarely sung, still alarm me, “It’s all about you Jesus. And all this is for you, for your glory and your fame. It’s not about me, as if you should do things my way. You alone are God and I surrender to your ways.”

Suffering gives us a container to somehow hold this unholdable God.  Suffering reminds us that he alone is God. There is a humility that shakes our knees, we are overwhelmed by our smallness, our fragility, our mortality in the face of it all. And although we are wiping the Wild Salty Wonder out of our eyes, in some ways it’s never been clearer, we’ve never seen things as poignantly as we do now. It’s all about Jesus, his glory, his fame. Who are we to think that He would do things our way? He alone is God and so we do, we surrender to Him and to His Holy, Weird, Strange, Wild ocean-like ways! Suffering does this for us: it allows us a glimpse at how strange and weird he really is, it lets us see his holiness up close.

Much of this post was adapted from Chapter 9 of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission written by Robynn Bliss & Sue Eenigenburg

Series on Suffering #1 – “Holy Shit – An Introduction”

SufferingToday Robynn begins taking us into a series on suffering. I am so grateful for this and also not a little frightened. As though talking about it may make suffering worse.

I have learned a few things about Robynn these past weeks that I didn’t know. I learned them because I’m reading the book that she co-authored called Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. And I can tell you this — she knows that of which she speaks. You can trust her on this topic. 

Today she begins this series in a way that makes me look forward to every thing she writes.

Holy Shit! – Introduction to a series on suffering by Robynn

There’s an expression that’s been tormenting me for several weeks now. It’s powerful and yet profane. I have no idea where it originated from although the internet has several suggestions to that end. This summer when we escaped to the mountains of Colorado for a week I heard it, not for the first time, as we were stepping out of a shop in the tiny town of Estes. Another tourist was walking past. He was chatting with his companion. Whatever he heard from his friend, it was enough to elicit the powerful punchline, “holy shit!” Even as a casual cusser, I was a little startled by it, actually. I had never really thought about the juxtaposition of those two words coupled together. But it set my mind to thinking and my soul to contemplating.

There is an element of holiness in shit. Not in literal excrement, of course. But in the way we’ve come to use ‘shit’ colloquially to mean the unfortunate stuff of life: sorrows, inconveniences, heart breaks, sufferings. Stubbed toes, dropped fruit bowls, banged shins, bad news…its all captured in the modern use of ‘shit’, and I am coming to believe it has all the makings of holiness.

We’ve all seen the news. Or for those like me, more visually shaken by graphic images, we’ve heard it on the radio. The world is chock full of bad news just now: Syria, Isis, Gaza, Ukraine, Ebola, Ferguson. It’s not looking too good. Earthquakes.Outbreaks. Heart aches. And that’s globally. What about personally? Unemployed. Diseased. Devastated. Waiting for test results? Waiting for phone calls? Waiting for him to come home? Waiting for her to apologize? How are we to come to grips with it all? How do we even begin to process all the pain—personal and public—it’s all too much. How do we sort it out? How do we keep our heads out of the sand and minds out of the psych ward?

Bad things happening aren’t the ingredients for holiness.

But in the face of bad things happening we recognize how completely out of control we are. We see the strangeness of God. We quiver at the ways he does things, or the times he seems silent, or the mysterious moments when he chooses to step in. His hugeness overshadows our smallness and if we choose to see, if we dare to look around, we see a thousand burning bushes. We see glimmers of holiness. The Terrific touches our toes and we have no other option but to slip off our shoes….for the ground we are standing on is altogether holy.

It seems to me, these are the days where we desperately need both a vibrant understanding of suffering and regular exercise in looking for holiness. What does suffering do? How does it work? Is there any good in it at all? How do we keep our hearts soft and our hope alive while suffering is active in our own stories? Where is God in all of it? How shall we respond when we see his shadow darkening our reality? What does everyday holiness look like? How will we recognize it when we see it? Where do we begin to look?

For the next several Wednesdays I’d like to explore the deep and wide topics of suffering and holiness. I have learned a little about these things over the years. I’ve caught glimpses of the power of suffering. I’ve seen its redemptive work. I’ve known the deep fellowship it invites. I’ve experienced God’s holiness like goose bumps in the aftermath of suffering. I’d like to think it all out loud here at Communicating Across Boundaries. I’d love to launch this conversation and see what we all might take away.

Because, Holy Shit! there’s a lot of it going on!