Series on Suffering #11 – an Interlude

Series on Suffering # 11 – an Interlude by Robynn. Take a look here to read other pieces from this excellent series.

candle for suffering

I’m sure it seems that the series on suffering came to an abrupt end, a jerking stop. I wanted to reassure you that the series is not over. I’ve not said all I want to say about suffering. I think there’s more to think through; more profound truths yet to be pondered.

But it’s time to interject a “selah”.

Throughout the ancient Hebrew book of songs and poetry, the Psalms, the composers and poets often insert a tiny musical notation, “selah”. The Hebrew meaning isn’t entirely clear. Most scholars have translated it as a moment to stop and listen–likely a musical interlude. Others call it a time to pause and contemplate. Often it’s awkwardly long to allow for time to notice what is truly going on, to ponder unfathomable realities, to listen to the music.

Many I know are going through seasons of deep suffering. There is so much pain on every side. Someone’s twin babies died. Someone needs another biopsy. Someone’s daughter is using meth. Someone is still mourning the death of their son. Someone has another test, more blood work, different meds. Someone’s pastor has been unkind. Someone is lonely and still unemployed. Someone has cancer….again. Someone has cancer….still. Societal sorrows are also rampant these days. Injustice, poverty, racism. War, violence, terrorism. Disease, fear, death. Displacement, discouragement, despair.

Just this morning in our local paper, Lowell read of a car accident, just outside of town. One teenager died; another injured. Those families will never be the same. Their lives are forever altered, tragically, grievously.

It’s heart breaking.

While I’ve not had any major diagnosis, or disturbing personal news, or dislocating trauma, there have been a series of little hurts, little pains, little griefs. These collect like pearls on a string and form a rosary of sorts. I add the pains of my friends and the griefs of complete strangers to the string. More beads: a few brightly coloured ones, a few misshapen, several imperfect beads. These are my prayer beads. I pray through them, over them, fingering the beads as I go.

Admittedly at times my fingers hesitate. My chest tightens. I stop and pray, Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. I continue in prayer for my pains, laying out my heartache to God who isn’t surprised or disappointed. I pause at another bigger bead, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done. I linger on these larger truth-telling beads. They are predictable and reassuring. They bring context to the endless rotation of smaller beads. On earth as it is in Heaven. My longings for true justice in this country, my aches for refugees scattered and vulnerable in the Middle East, my sadnesses for whole countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. On earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread. There is so much need. I feel my own emptiness keenly. My reserves are depleted. I rest on this truth: he gives us our daily portion, our daily piece. Like mercy, it’s new and ready and available every day. Please also give us our daily stamina, our daily endurance, our daily strength, our daily energy. We are past finished. We are done. And completely undone.

And forgive us our tresspasses.Those we commit willingly, deliberately with mean spirits and those we commit blindly, ignorantly, naively. Forgive us our injustices, our poverty of spirit, our racist hearts…as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. War, violence, terror. Deliver us from displacement, discouragement, despair. Please deliver us from dread. Deliver us also from fear and worry.

Late last night I got a message from my dear friend Ellen. She wrote, “It seems like so many of my friends are in crisis or terrible situations this Christmas. Keeps me busy praying the truth of Advent over all of us.”

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine’s child tried to kill himself. It was unbearable for his mom, my friend. As I prayed for her I had this image that each prayer was in effect wrapping her in a protective gauze, creating for her a space for healing. Each time I pray for her, I still have that sense that my prayers are cocooning her, covering her.

What better gauze to use to cover us all than the truths of Advent! Christ came for all of this. God is with us in all of it. He doesn’t stand distant and unresponsive. He hears the cries of his children. He comes.

And he brings hope and joy, justice and true liberty into the darkness. He unpacks peace and possibility. With him in the room we can brave optimism and laughter. Our Defender, goes with us to the courtroom. The Great Physician comes with us to the doctor’s office. He cries over the empty crib. He sits on the empty bed and weeps that the boy nearly fully grown will never come home again. Reading the text message that uses profanity to push away, he sees through the pretense to the heart that punched out the words in an attempt to protect from further pain.

He doesn’t waste any of it. Standing with us, knee deep in the mess and misery of it all, he redeems and restores. God with us. Christ born for us. The Holy One alive in us. These are the truths of Advent.


For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.


And ever.


Picture Credit: word art Marilyn R. Gardner

Series on Suffering #10 – Kindness

Robynn continues the series on suffering today with a look at kindness.

kindness I’m wondering if suffering gives us a taste for kindness? In suffering you are stripped bare of all your own resources. There’s a desperation of spirit that settles in, a profound loneliness, a longing for empathetic companionship, a desire for kindness. In some ways we fail to recognize true kindness until we’ve tasted sorrow and despair. Kindness, like generosity and joy, are taken for granted until we’ve known heart-aching suffering.

A faraway friend, who has tracked this series on suffering, sent me this poem a few weeks ago. It has been simmering in my soul ever since. The poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, is certainly a woman who has lived between worlds. Raised by a Palestinian father and an American mother, she spent parts of her life here in the US and parts of her life in the Arab world. She understands the complexities of living with a scattered soul and her writing reflects that.

Nye once said, “I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things. I love staring, pondering, mulling, puttering. I love the times when someone or something is late—there’s that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime…”

She has seen up close, “how desolate the landscape can be.” Nye knows suffering and sorrow. She knows the agonies of loving two places at once –and the horrors of knowing those two places misunderstand one another. After the Twin Towers attack in New York City in 2001, Naomi Nye contributed some of her most meaningful work in an effort to bridge the divide between Americans and Arabs.

Today I give you her poem, Kindness. Originally written in 1995, it resurfaced with powerful meaning after 9/11. Violence in the world opens our communal longings to questions we might not have asked before. We find ourselves begging for meaning. Personal suffering does the same thing, on a smaller scale, perhaps, for the universe, but in a much more demanding way for the individual soul.

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.

~ Naomi Shihab Nye

Read more about Naomi Shihab Nye here:

Series on Suffering #9 – Darkness and Light and Waiting

Series on Suffering #9: Darkness and Light and Waiting by Robynn

I’ve been wanting to include a piece on waiting in this series on suffering. Waiting is so much of what is agonizing about suffering. Waiting for phone calls, waiting for appointments, waiting for test results, waiting to hear from a wayward son, waiting to talk to the supervisor, waiting for child support, waiting for an interview. Waiting.

We’re not very good at it either. It’s hard to endure, to be patient, to hold it together. We want things quickly, we want instant results, we want to rush through to the end. But that’s not how it seems to work ever.

As I was mulling these things over, I received a letter as part of growing group of concerned friends, from my friend Barry who’s wife has been battling cancer. It perfectly captures the issue of waiting. With Barry’s permission I give you this letter in it’s entirety.


Hi Friends,

In photography, we need enough light to record a photograph. Most of us have taken pictures that didn’t have enough light. (And sometimes what is enough light for one part of a photograph is insufficient for another part of a photograph.)

But with even a tiny bit of light, if we wait the right amount of time, it is enough to make a good photograph; even in the middle of a dark night, if we take the time.

These two photographs, taken a few days ago in Carol’s hospital room within the same minute, illustrate the point. The “dark” one was exposed for 1/120th of a second. The “bright” one below was exposed for 1/15th of a second. As you can see, there is three times as much light when we wait eight times longer.

In haiku form, it might go like this:
  if we wait for it,
a little light is enough.
see. it’s worth the wait.

Honestly, this is not an attempt to be profound, it’s a slow desire to understand and make meaning out of suffering (ours or others’) and a deeply broken world where cancer cells (or Ebola cells, or misdirected extremists, or extreme climate patterns, or greedy / selfish / ignorant / desperate / hurting people) show up uninvited with their/our baggage. This is an attempt to translate into a few English words (and a couple images) the very strange warping of time in these 24 months that have passed by with this disease knocking on our door and coming inside, bringing its darkness, but not having the last word.

In our experience, fighting cancer is largely a matter of waiting, not doing. Waiting for appointments, waiting for scans, waiting for chemo to slowly drip through the IV, waiting for the chemo to work, waiting for the chemo to wear off, waiting for the latest lab results, waiting for the latest diagnosis, waiting for information, waiting for sleep to come, waiting for strength to return, waiting for good news, waiting for bad news.

But strangely, the longer we wait, the more opportunity there is for a greater amount of light to illuminate and resolve some kind of reasonable “pictures” of it all; to learn and gain some valuable things we might not otherwise have learned; to share, give, receive, depend, and discover some things we might not otherwise have encountered. Gaining a little more light, even in suffering, seems more valuable than getting somewhere faster.

Waiting is often unpleasant. Sometimes it’s downright fearful or painful. But it seems if we open ourselves to The Wait rather than fighting it, if we stop trying to “manage” time in these kinds of journeys, there is something to be received and even gained, apart from our very reasonable hopes for longevity and certain medical outcomes.

As I’ve just proven, this is very hard to explain. In the end, as with every human life, it comes down to a few faith choices each of us makes repeatedly along the path; and our posture, and our receptivity to some things that are just around the corner of our understanding.

On a much more tangible note, we are slowly learning more about this (flexible, and flexing) CNS chemo regimen, which will last around 10 weeks. It will likely involve 5 biweekly in-patient stays of around 4 days with high-dose methotrexate and other drugs; alternating with around 5 biweekly out-patient chemo infusions like Carol had today, which take around 4-5 hours; and some other chemo drugs with various cycles and timing. This is what we’ll be doing through the end of the year, and working / living / listening / waiting in the in-between hours, waiting for just enough light we need for today. Thank God for light. What a great idea that was.

Carol has a picc line (rather than multiple weekly pokes into her veins, or a surgical “port” which she had 2 years ago but was removed) which requires daily maintenance. Please pray for this to remain safe from infection.

Our hope and prayer is that this chemo regimen will eliminate the cancer activity in Carol’s brain and the rest of her body; and that the remission will either last a long time or give space for other treatment options which are not yet visible to us. We wait.

Thank you for waiting with us.

Barry and Carol

Series on Suffering #8 – A Pause

Rain drops

Suffering: A Pause by Robynn. Click here to read more posts by Robynn.

I’m pushing pause on the series on suffering today.

This past weekend my dad was admitted to hospital in excruciating pain. He was given generous doses of narcotics to help bring him some relief. Xrays and CAT scans revealed three large kidney stones, one lodged in the ureter. It was determined that surgery was the best option. During surgery the doctor made every effort to remove the three stones but was unsuccessful. He was able to crush the three stones into considerably smaller pieces and prescribed medication that would hopefully dissolve the stones.

This weekend a dear friend of mine discovered painful news about one of her children. It left her reeling and angry. Later in the weekend her child tried to end his life. They ended up in the hospital too.

Yesterday late afternoon I received word that my dad was rushed back to the Emergency Room. His pain was once again out of control. He was also experiencing disturbing psychotic episodes. The nurse practitioner at the doctor’s office suspected a septic infection. The doctors at the ER began treatment for that but they think a morphine withdrawal is at work.

Meanwhile his shingles, that he had this summer, flared up again. He is suffering on every side.

My friend and her pain wracked family are trying to re-establish routines. How do they parent past this? They are numb and worn thin. Children still need to be dropped off at school. Supper needs to be cooked. Jobs, appointments, obligations on the calendar need to be attended to.

I can’t write on suffering today. I’m grieving with my friends. I’m worried for my dad. The suffering is too deep. Words today would sound hollow. They’d echo back at me. Today is a day for pause. It’s a day for prayer. It’s a day for pleading for mercy. Today I wrap my friend and my dad in gauze-prayers, gently spiraling around them, praying for protection and comfort and gentleness. I pray for healing for bodies marred by pain and hearts that are crushed like kidney stones. I pray for restoration for bruised souls and broken bodies. Tears run down my face. I wish I could do something.

There’s an old story where four men bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus. They carry him on a bed. When they get to the place where Jesus had been staying they realize they aren’t going to be able to get close to Jesus. There are too many other people there. It’s too crowded. They lug him up onto the roof, place him down, and start removing tiles or thatch or whatever the roofing materials were between them and the Healer. They eventually make a hole big enough to lower their friend down, still on his bed, right in front of Jesus. Long story short– Jesus looks up at the faith-filled faces of the friends peering down through the roof-hole, and then back at the man immovable on his bed, and he heals the man. The friends really believed that if they could just get their friend to this Divine Healer their friend stood a chance. Jesus recognized that faith in them and in response healed the paralyzed man.

And this is the something I can do. Today I’m bringing my dad and my friend to Jesus. Both have reached the end. Both have endured long past their capacities. They can’t bear any more hurting. They can’t handle any more suffering. Their pain has paralyzed them. I’m dragging them to the roof and I’m digging a hole. I’m lowering them down to Jesus. Because I still do believe that if I can just place them in front of Jesus they stand a chance of being healed.

Today I pause to pray. Dragging, lugging, lowering, pleading prayers.

Picture Credit: word art by Marilyn R. Gardner