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.

Souls Under Construction (& Monday Muffins)

English: Charles/MGH station, and the Longfell...

A green net covering a high chain link barrier obstructs my view of the Charles River. The Longfellow Bridge is under construction. It will be under construction for three years, causing inconvenience in traffic patterns, heavy congestion in an already crowded area, and ugly, obstructed views.

But it’s necessary. It’s a part of keeping the bridge safe and strong, able to withstand the constant stream of cars, bikes, subway, and people that it’s designed to handle.

Sometimes the only way to make things better is to fix them, to reconstruct them.

And so it is with our souls. There are times when our souls need to be under construction, when that is the only way for them to withstand the constant force of life in all its uncertainty.

I heard once at a conference that our “churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal”. This is part of the under construction process — realizing that your soul needs to heal and the wisest thing to do is to allow time for the construction and healing process to take place.

Several years ago my husband and I went through an extended period of healing, an extended construction period. It lasted over six years. During that time we did nothing beyond attending church and getting together with safe friends. We didn’t take part in any Bible Studies, we were not involved in any ‘ministry’, we did no service. We went through a season of healing and it was invaluable.

Besides achieving the desired result of healing and reconstructing, we learned several things.

1. We learned that we were far more use to God as people willing to be healed than we would have been had we tried to maintain a façade. The Psalmist David in a prayer of repentance says: “A broken and contrite heart you will not despise.” He speaks to the mercy of God, his loving kindness, the bones that God has broken. God has never, and will never, despise a broken and contrite heart. It’s the heart of the proud and the deceitful that concerns him far more.

2. We learned that our worth was not, and never will be, in what we do. Church service, ‘ministry’, getting involved – none of that is wrong. In fact, when done out of love for God it is a gift to be used for his glory. But it does not constitute our worth. Our worth this: we are made in the image of God, his creation, his love. Getting that wrong, thinking this is about what we do is far more dangerous to the soul than taking time out for healing.

3. We came to realize that when you go through a season of healing, God brings people into your life who are broken and need to hear that there is redemption, there is healing. Even in the midst of the hardest parts of healing, we would meet people who needed to know there was hope, needed to know we were also walking the long, arduous path called ‘healing’. Perhaps broken seeks out broken? I like to think broken knows that it can learn best from those also willing to go through the construction process.

4. We learned that the words ‘ministry’ will never be synonymous with ‘God’, and when we make them, we are in a state of serious delusion. If we are not careful, ‘ministry’ becomes God. The word itself is held up as the ideal, instead of God himself being the ideal and ministry the result of our love for him. Defined as ‘the one that serves’ we can see ministry for what it is – not an end in itself, simply a way to reflect a love of God.

5. Mostly we learned that God is close to the broken-hearted. He cared not about our lack of service, he cared about our souls. Deeply, urgently, consistently he worked in our souls to reconstruct them to His Glory. The cuts that we sustained by his hand in the healing process were cuts of a gifted surgeon, done only to rid us of what would harm. And oh how they hurt, how they smarted. But when all was done, when surgery ended, the dead tissue was gone, only the healthy remained.

While a major construction and healing period is over, we are still ever aware of our fragility and propensity to go out on our own, thinking our souls are fully fixed. But the reality is somewhat different. Just as the Longfellow Bridge will go through this extended construction period and emerge stronger, it will always have its points of weakness,need for inspections, and regular upkeep.

It’s something I remember every day as I pass by this bridge under construction, our souls are always and ever under construction.

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Brown Sugar Browned Butter Maple MuffinsStacy continues to provide amazing recipes for me to post. Today’s is Brown Sugar Browned Butter Maple Muffins – a mouthful of title and goodness. Stacy says this: “they taste and smell of warm winter breakfasts to me.”

Hope in the Red and Gold

For years while living in Pakistan and Cairo we had no Autumn. No pumpkins. No apple picking. No smells of apple crisp or pie coming from a hot oven. No crisp fall days, where leaves crunch under foot and life is suspended in a golden, Autumn glow.

I have come to cherish Autumn; to cherish the hope that comes with the reds and golds. I am slowly coming from a place of dreading what’s beyond the Autumn to resting in the wonder of the now.

There is hope in the red and the gold – hope in the falling leaves, hope in the crisp air. There is a consistency to this season that I don’t feel in others. Spring is too elusive; summer can come with disappointments of crushed expectation; winter – well winter just is. But Autumn is consistent in its shorter days and golden looks.

Autumn is where I first learned to create traditions in the United States. Autumn is where my friend Karen taught me about pumpkin carving and apple picking. Autumn is where I learned to not fear what was coming ahead, not dread what hadn’t yet come. Autumn is the season where I grew up as a mom, learned how to be a mom in North America.

I learned about soccer and theatre; about field trips and evening concerts with 4th graders who knew only two notes on their recorders; I learned about volunteering and being the only mom in the parent-teacher organization with a nosepin. It was in Autumn that I learned what it was to be so homesick for a place I could hardly move; in Autumn where I learned the hard lesson of moving from community to being unknown. And then it was in falling leaves that crunched that I learned what it was to heal, to know that there was One who understood homesick better than any other. It was Autumn where I failed and succeeded and failed again as a mom. It was in Autumn that my heart broke and repaired. It was in the red and gold glow that my tears fell and my heart was hurt and heard.

So there is, and always will be, hope in the red and gold.

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Permission to Embarrass

Fridays with Robynn

Recently I gave God permission to embarrass me!

I know that might sound odd and even somewhat sacrilegious. But it helped me to relax. It helped me let God be God.

Let me lay it all out for you…and you can connect the dots.

*Every Tuesday evening this summer we’ve been attending the Alpha course. Alpha is an introduction to the Christian faith. It’s a safe place where conversations happen. I love it! I love the honest interaction, the laughter, the agony that’s shared in a circle with new friends.

*We’ve been taking our neighbours: confirmed atheists, Adam and Theresa. And they’ve enjoyed it. They keep coming back. The discussions we’ve had with them have been crazy intense. It’s been revealing and riveting.

*This past Tuesday the topic was two-fold: the problem of evil and healing. According to the Alpha tradition we eat dinner together, watch a video on the topic at hand and then break into small groups to discuss what we’ve heard.  But the healing night is a little different. On this particular evening we don’t break into small groups, rather, we offer an opportunity for people to ask for prayer. You can ask prayer for anything but the assumption is that you might want prayer for healing of some kind.

*It’s amazing! God loves to heal. He’s kind and compassionate…and He loves to heal.

*But sometimes he doesn’t heal.  And I find that a little embarrassing.  And when there are those on the fringes of belief, or outside belief, it feels even more embarrassing, almost a putting God on trial. If he fails, what then?

*Tuesday I was nervous to think that Adam and Theresa might come, they might experience the awkward moment when people are asking for prayer, they might even risk asking for prayer themselves and then what if God didn’t do anything.

*As it turned out after the video Adam and Theresa asked some mutual friends, the leaders of our Alpha small group, if they would go into another room with them and discuss it! They wanted to think more about the problem of evil. They wanted to hash that out some more. It was hard to put that huge problem up against God’s longing to heal souls and bodies, hearts and wounds.

I have no idea if anyone was healed last night. But somehow it helped that I had already given God permission to embarrass me. I had let him off the hook. I said it’s ok for You to do things Your way. You are God. You can be in charge. I felt more relaxed. I felt my faith increase. Prayer is a vulnerable thing. Asking for prayer is risky.

Letting God do His thing meant I could stand back. I didn’t feel the need to explain Him away, or defend Him in any way.  God is God. He can be Weird and Wild; Awesome and at times, Awkward. But when I give Him permission to embarrass me, I’m letting Him be Himself. And it was freeing and foreign.

Maybe a little of me was quietly healed in the process…!

Proof That My Heart is Alive!

A dead heart doesn’t scar. 

Scars don’t matter on the dead. No one thinks of their scars – their bodies are cold, dead, in the ground.

Scars matter on the living – they tell a story on those of us who are alive. They are a reminder that our bodies are a living, breathing, duplicating group of cells; that our cells form a body subject to those wounds that come from accidents and illness.

Scars are not only reminders that the body is alive, they are reminders that our hearts are alive. Let me say it again: A dead heart doesn’t scar. But when it’s alive to love and pain, sorrow and joy then it is vulnerable to the people who come in and leave their marks – whether good or bad.

A heart may be scarred but it’s still alive – and being alive means there is room for hope.

The dead don’t scar; only the living do. My scarred heart stands as ‘proof of life’.~Alece Ronzino

And a heart that is alive feels grief, feels separation.

Bettie Addleton – a longtime friend of my parents now turned friend of mine – is a regular reader to Communicating Across Boundaries. She sent this quote today by way of email and it speaks wisdom into grief, gratitude into scars from loss, and hope into wounds from separation. So I’ll end with these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

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“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not attempt to do so. 

One must simply hold out and endure it.

At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort.

For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it.

It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness.  God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve – even in pain – the authentic relationship.

Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation.

But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy.  One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Forcing Forsythia

This year, for the first time, we forced forsythia.

Let me explain.

Forsythia is the first plant to bloom in these parts. Its buds begin turning to stunning yellow flowers as the first days of spring arrive.

But this year has been cold.

Much colder than normal. And so the forsythia stayed put, afraid to come out of its plant cocoon, staying inside lest the cold kill or harm it.

We went to my mom’s house for Easter in New York state and she had bright branches of forsythia on her windowsill in a vase. “Your forsythia is blooming” we cried! “Ours still hasn’t come out”

We were desperate for forsythia – a sign of spring, a sign of hope, a sign of new life. The fall and winter felt like they have held so much that is not life-giving, much walking in the dark, feeling around for markers on the journey. We wanted forsythia. We wanted spring.

My mom replied that her forsythia was not yet blooming either. “You know” she said “You can cut the branches and it will bloom inside”. We had no idea.

So we did. My husband cut large branches and we stuck them in water. We forced them to bloom. We brought them in, put them in a warmer spot and in two days we had bright, beautiful yellow blossoms.

We had forced the forsythia to bloom and brighten our lives.

I’m not sure all the lessons in this. But I know this – sometimes, when all around me seems dead and ugly, I need to force forsythia. I need to do something to force growth, to create change, to bring beauty.

When all around us seemed dead, we needed to force forsythia to see signs of new life.

This week marks a new beginning. A healing of Cambridge and Boston, the cities where I both live and work. Since last Monday at 3pm eastern standard time, there has been terror, death, loss, and hopelessness.

It would be easy to continue to drown ourselves in news, to keep track of every aspect of this case, to shout for revenge. But none of those things bring about true healing. Sometimes healing starts by embracing beauty, by voicing gratitude for the amazing signs of life that surround us.

My friend Sara of The Roving Home posted a beautiful picture of her baby girl, Francie on her Facebook wall. The caption above the picture said this:

“Francie at the beach yesterday, making the world better through cuteness.” Francie simply by being made me remember beauty and the gift of life.

As we’re shaking in the aftermath of sorrow and ugly we begin to surround ourselves with beauty – with light and life and all that is lovely. Forcing forsythia to bloom and change us.

And we begin to heal.

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Cultural Hope to Living Reality

Wheelchair seating in a theater (i.e. giving a...

The painting was two feet wide and at least three and a half feet long. It hung on a wall in an art gallery, dominant despite sharing the space with several other paintings. While there were others that had caught my eye, this one in particular was striking.

It was a picture of an art gallery with a painting of Jesus on the cross on the central wall. Looking up at the painting, hope and longing pouring from the canvas was a man in a wheelchair. The painting was called “Cultural Hope”.

It was a moment of awe as we in the studio stood, invited in to this private moment between Jesus and a wheelchair-bound man. It was reminiscent of stories long ago where in a crowded room a paralyzed man was healed – only this man was still bound.

I wanted to stand there forever. Was it the longing in the man’s eyes? Was it the distinctive connection between the two. Was it that moment of shared suffering between cross and wheelchair that shouted of pain and only whispered of redemption?

I walked away strangely challenged and moved. While this man’s wheelchair was visual, my wheelchair is in my mind. While his paralysis was obvious, mine is hidden. But I, like the man in the painting, have my times of looking at the cross shouting with pain and hearing only the whisper of redemption.

But the whisper compels me, telling me to wait, reminding me that the cross was replaced by an empty tomb; that my painting goes beyond “cultural hope” to a living reality.