Toward a Fellowship of Suffering

When my children were small and they got hurt they would come running to me, tears streaming down their faces. And I would pick them up and hold them close. I rarely said “Shh, shh – don’t cry. Everything will be okay.” Instead I would  say “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then I would just hold them. Even now, I’m not sure why I didn’t tell them it would be okay.


At one time I was an expert at labor. I have a body that takes to pregnancy like the proverbial duck to water. My body glows during pregnancy. My hips, inherited from both sides of the family, are made for delivering babies. In five pregnancies I only had morning sickness a couple of times, and that was because I made the mistake of taking prenatal vitamins with their mega doses of iron on an empty stomach. I’m not saying any of this in pride – it’s fact. I could have probably had 10 babies and been fine in terms of the pregnancy. (I’m glad I didn’t by the way – just in case you were thinking of asking. Post pregnancy, child raising is a completely different journey.)

I also went through the labor and deliveries of five children with no hitches, no complications, just the hard, hard work of labor. But no matter how “easy” the labor, no mom ever forgets that period that they call ”transition.” Transition is when you look at your husband and you want to say things like “I could kill you right now with my bare hands for putting me in this position.” Transition is where you think you can’t bear one more contraction, one more pain. During transition, you need the presence of people who will sit with you, with no condemnation, no judgment and walk you through the process. You need people who will not chide you for telling your husband he has bad breath, or to shut up and get out. There is no other way but through. You have to get to the end of yourself. During transition you don’t want an explanation, you just want someone there with you. You want someone to lean on, someone to rely on, someone who knows that you can make it through to the other side; the side of the tears and that baby that is so precious that it hurts your heart.

I think sitting with women through labor is a bit like sitting with people through suffering.


There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will help you.”

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

And so we must not leave people alone. 

Coming beside them, will I pick them up and say the words “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then will I hold them? Will I work toward a fellowship of suffering?

fellowship of suffering

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”(from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College)

“Out of the darkness of the cross, the world transfigures into new life.

And there is no other way.

It is dark suffering’s umbilical cord that alone can untether new life.

It is suffering that has the realest possibility to bear down and deliver grace.

And grace that chooses to bear the cross of suffering overcomes that suffering.

My pain, my dark—all the world’s pain, all the world’s dark—it might actually taste sweet to the tongue, be the genesis of new life.

And emptiness itself can birth the fullness of grace because in the emptiness we have the opportunity to turn to God, the only begetter of grace.

And there find all the fullness of joy.”



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

An Invitation to Return – Part 2

An Invitation to Return – Part 2 by Robynn. If you missed yesterday’s post you can read it here. 

As I think about these big questions – the ‘where is God when I hurt’ sort of questions I keep on going back to this idea of return. 

I humbly offer to you that suffering today might also serve as a reminder to turn back to your Divine Dad, to your heavenly Father. I know he feels distant and forever away. But I also know from experience that he’s right there. With you. Present.

It was the refrain of all the old stories. It was repeated in different ways, with different emphasizes to Jacob, to Isaac, Abraham, Joseph, Moses….I am with you. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.

Some of Jesus’ last words to his friends were a charge to go to all nations and tell people the good news of grace and a generous hospitable God. He ended that great commission with these powerful words: “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end….” Whatever happens, wherever it happens be confident of this one thing: I am with you always!

In the middle of St Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, he reassured them of the same message. Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?…No, despite all these things…I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

He is with us. Always.

On that dark night, eons ago, when Christ was born, he was called, Immanuel, which meant God is with us. Omnipresent. Present in all places and at all times. Always and forever. He is with us.

And He invites us warmly to turn to him in times of trouble. He’s there. Ready and eager to walk us through whatever the suffering is, whatever the pain might be. It doesn’t mean it’s fixed or finished or finalized. But it does mean you don’t have to walk through cancer alone. He is with you.You don’t have to face unemployment on your own. He is with you. You don’t have to struggle with depleted bank balances, or angry teenagers, or critical employers, or single parenting challenges, or moving across the state, or the death of a parent, or a disappointing marriage, or conflict in an extended family, or abandonment or the persuasive pull of an addiction, or an undiagnosed disease alone. He is with you in it, through it, until it’s over, embracing you with pure grace. 

But even there, if you seek God, your God, you’ll be able to find him if you’re serious, looking for him with your whole heart and soul. When troubles come and all these awful things happen to you, in future days you will come back to God, your God, and listen obediently to what he says. God, your God, is above all a compassionate God. In the end he will not abandon you, he won’t bring you to ruin. (Deut.4:30 The Message)

Series on Suffering #7 – An Invitation to Return

Father and Son

Series on Suffering by Robynn

An Invitation to Return – Part 1

There is an agonizing set of questions that has been troubling people since the beginning of time. Where is God when I hurt? Where is God in the face of devastating suffering? Why doesn’t he rescue? Why doesn’t he bring relief? Why does it often seem he suddenly goes mute and distant, silent and removed.

I don’t want, for a second, to minimize this. These are huge questions. They are big and voluminous. They rattle around our souls, echoing, taunting. We dare not treat them flippantly. But I wonder if there’s not another set of questions that begs asking as well. Where am I when I hurt? Where do I go in the face of devastating suffering? Where do I turn for relief and rescue? Do I suddenly go mute and distant, silent and removed?

It seems to me that suffering, among other things, is also a profound and personal invitation to return to God. We are most vulnerable when we hurt. Desperation and a deep desire for relief and comfort pound our souls like waves on a turbulent sea. It’s relentless. The squeaky wheel, the demanding child, the sounding alarm….the suffering soul repeatedly begs for mercy. I believe that God is present and longs to welcome us, bruised, hurting, grieving, in desperation, home to him. God is far from distant. He is near….an ever-present help in trouble.  Suffering might very well be his request for our attention– to be present to him, to find him there waiting.

There is a fabulous little story that Jesus told. It’s the story of the prodigal son. Books have been written about it, poems penned, paint put to canvas in an effort to capture some of the profound emotion connected to this story. We are all familiar with it. There’s a father and his two sons. The younger son craves adventure and freedom and asks the father if he might cash in on his inheritance early. The older son, I’m sure, rolls his eyes at the absurdity of the request. Their dad is still very much alive. How ridiculous to even ask for such a thing! But it’s worse. In a Middle Eastern context he is basically saying to his dad “I wish you were dead.”

Much to the shock and consternation of the older brother and all who hear the story, the father says yes. He gives the younger son half of what he would have had coming. The younger son, with joy and excitement rides off into the sunset, for the time of his life!

He has the time of his life alright! —but it was hardly the frivolity and fun he was hoping for. He rapidly burns through his money-stash on wild living. In the midst of a local famine and with no resources, he begins to starve. The younger son finds work feeding animals. He’s in such a bad way that even the animal food looks good to him. He’s broke, friendless, starving and doing work that he despises.

The depths of his suffering bring him back to his senses. He bravely goes home to face the humiliating consequences of his many bad choices.

So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

The father full of love and compassion, joy and delight runs to his son! Imagine the fuss and the chaos! Servants are being shouted for…people are running in circles to obey the Father’s wishes! Luxurious garments and gold rings are not the response the prodigal son was expecting. This father –son embrace is pure grace. The son knew how far he had wandered, how much he had wasted, how long he had strayed. And he returned not to punishment, not to the silent treatment, not to condemnation, not to judgment, not to manipulation and distortion, not to a dysfunctional dad, not to a drunken rage…. He returned to love. The father was so happy his son was home. He was thrilled to have him back. He had come home.

Some of the wandering son’s suffering stemmed from his own choices. He chose wild living. He chose to spend all his money. But some of the suffering was because of where he happened to be in the moment. He was in the area that was affected by drought and famine. That wasn’t his fault or his choice. But it was suffering of an intense sort. It was the suffering that brought the boy to his senses. Suffering was the wake-up call he needed to turn home again, to return to his dad.

 If you have missed this series you may want to go back to the beginning. It is an excellent series with depth and challenge.

Picture Credit:

Series on Suffering #6 – Trouble Shooting

suffering 6

Series on Suffering #6: Trouble shooting by Robynn

This summer when we moved into the new house we had to get new kitchen appliances. The house’s previous owners had taken the appliances that were there. We had to get machines that helped cook and store food and clean. Along with each new appliance came a small stack of reading material. An installation guide, an instruction manual, and guarantee cards. I flipped through them, skimming the important highlights and then filed them away. However, the day the dishwasher started making interesting beeping sounds, and we couldn’t figure out how to stop the annoyance and start the appliance, I quickly resumed my reading. Each instruction manual had an invaluable chapter entitled, Trouble Shooting. It’s a ‘what to do if…” section, a to-do list of sorts if ever the appliance is causing trouble. If the dishwasher makes this sound, try this. If the wash cycle won’t start, try that.

There is no trouble shooting guide to the problem of pain. There is no chapter anywhere that will tell you how to get out of the suffering. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of self-help books that will suggest ways to lose weight, get out of debt, break addictions, endure irregular people, manage your disease, find victory over your circumstances—I’ve read several and with great optimism! But none of those books provide a checklist to make the suffering stop.

I have happened upon a small book that points people in persistent pain to a list of meaningful things to do in the midst of the suffering. Admittedly when you’re lying on your back with dengue fever and the electricity is off making it impossible for the fan above your aching fevering body to circulate any air but the thick air of self-pity, it’s really hard to imagine ever doing anything again. When the phone call is over and the horrendous news settles in around your soul it’s really very difficult to think about anything but curling up into a small place and crying. After visiting a friend who is dying in the hospital it feels impossible to return to the outside world where people are still alive. Suffering sucks the air out of our lungs. It weakens us. It exhausts us. It feels like the whole world comes crashing to a standstill, paralyzed, immobilized. That’s the power of suffering and in some ways, that’s also the point of suffering. As I’ve been able to work my way through the suggested list from this book I have found hope and some relief and revelatory mystery that serves to distract me from my problems in helpful ways.

This small book I refer to is actually a letter that the apostle Peter wrote to a community of people that were scattered and suffering. (Part of their suffering, I’m sure, was as a result of that scattering. They were foreigners. We at Communicating Across Boundaries understand that type of displacement and the pain and angst that accompanies that type of living very well.) Peter writes them to encourage them in their troubles but also to commission them to live intentionally in spite of those same trials. Here is some of the list he gave them to do:

  1. Live with your focus on the hope of a better future. There is joy ahead. Things will not always be this way. We can live with great expectation and a holy optimism. Jesus will change things up. Remember that. Keep your eyes glued to that unfathomable hope.
  2. Think clearly and exercise self-control. Don’t give into old habits and former vices. It’s tempting, I know. It’s easy to eat the whole tub of ice cream, or all the chips in the packet, or the entire pan of cookies. It feels like it should help somehow, it should bring comfort of some kind. But it doesn’t really. I’ve tried. Step back and choose holy living. Control yourself. Don’t abandon all discipline and restraint.
  3. Remember who you are! You belong to God. Your identity is deeply entrenched in that. Bring that to mind. Dwell in it. Live from it. You are a chosen people…royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession….God’s people.
  4. Love each other deeply, sincerely. In the heart of crisis and sadness it’s easy to become obsessed with myself. Self-pity, sadness, hopelessness all follow me like a pack of loyal dogs. Peter recommends looking outside ourselves to those around us and then loving them sincerely and generously. Phone a friend, see how they are doing. Make a batch of cookies, deliver them to a neighbour. Make eye contact with a stranger at the grocery store. Greet them. Strike up a conversation. Reach outside of yourself. Show others the goodness of God.
  5. Keep on doing what is right. Don’t let the suffering stop you. Resist the urge to curse those who frustrate, to be angry at those who don’t understand, to be unkind to those who’ve been cruel. There is nothing to be gained in that. Keep on doing what is right and good. Be kind. Be generous. Speak gently. Share a meal with someone who’s also hurting. Trust your story to the God who created you. He will never fail you.
  6. Don’t stop praying. Earnestly pour out your heart to God. Give him your troubles, your cares, your worries, your concerns. This praying thing humbles us. It’s a powerful way of admitting our weakness and our vulnerability. We are not in charge. Heaven knows if we were, this isn’t how we would have planned it. Praying helps us acknowledge that. Praying forces us to recognize our humanity, our mortality, our dependence. As we cast our cares on God, as we fling our flounderings, our messes, our pains on God, we grow to see how very much he cares for us. We give him the opportunity to minister deep grace and comfort to our souls. Prayer invites God into it all.

This is some of what Peter wrote to those who were struggling ever so long ago. I’m convinced that lots of it still applies to us. Peter’s list can school us in how to better endure and what to do while we are enduring. It doesn’t trouble shoot and bring us to solutions nor does it unfortunately shoot our troubles way…but somehow, mysteriously, it helps to know that others have suffered over the years and many of them took solace in this little letter. Like us, they found meaningful work to do in the midst of their suffering. They found distractions that pointed them to hope. They found instructions on how to lay their souls out bare before their kind and gracious God. They found little scatterings of comfort as they endeavoured to live a little separately from their scarred and scared selves.

And I think we can too.

When my dishwasher’s beeping was beyond aggravating, I turned to the trouble shooting section of the manual. Eventually I pushed the right sequence of buttons and to everyone’s great relief the blaring noises ceased and the quiet workings of a machine in motion started up. This letter from Peter won’t do all that. The blasting rhythms of suffering won’t necessarily stop. But in the clamour of it all, I do believe, it’s possible for the crazy cacophony of our own personal suffering to be pushed into a dull background noise, over which hope and comfort suddenly sing louder.

Picture Credit: word art Marilyn R. Gardner

Click here to read the Series on Suffering.