Productive Pain: Standing Still in God’s Love and Mercy

Joel 2:1-18

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.  Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”  —Joel 2:12-13

“If you look for the pain, you will find it.  Don’t go looking for it.”  —- My dentist, a few weeks ago after my root canal.

It is so that my experience this time was entirely different from those previous occasions when I sat in the dentist’s chair for this same purpose.  In fact, those other times I would have to say I ‘looked for the pain” and you can be sure I found it. I planned ahead and arranged to have someone drive me to and from my appointments.  I filled the prescription for pain meds as soon as I could and yes, I took them until they were gone.

Well, it turns out this time my dentist was right. Yes, I did use it as a good excuse to have someone else step in for leading Confirmation that night, but I probably could have gone.  Even so, my actual pain was minimal.  In fact, as I’ve poked around since I’ve discovered that there is actual research to back her up. Sometimes when we ‘look for’ pain we are, in fact, more likely to feel it.  And that seems especially foolish when that pain is less than ‘productive.’

On the other hand?  Sometimes pain is entirely productive.  This is the sort of pain which alerts us that something is wrong, wounded, or broken.  Indeed, had I tended to the pain in my tooth weeks before I actually surrendered and found myself in that dentist’s chair, I would have been in a whole lot better shape. That nagging toothache was telling me something that for reasons I now find hard to comprehend, I chose to ignore until I no longer could. In the same way, that nagging sense that something is not right in the world, in our world, between those closest to us or people far away — it alerts us to the truth that something is terribly wrong and is crying out for healing.

This is one gift of Ash Wednesday, of course.  Oh, on this day at the threshold of Lent, like on any other day, we don’t necessarily have to ‘look for the pain.’ For it is, as we well know, already there.  And yet that smudge of ash on our foreheads forces us to stand still within it for a while and to pay attention to this pain which is as present as a long held regret which refuses to let us go, as pressing as the needs of a neighbor we’ve chosen to ignore, as persistent as the loneliness our own self-righteousness has imposed upon us. This pain belongs to all of us —- even though sometimes, like with my toothache, we choose to ignore it, wishfully hoping it will just go away.
And so it is that on Ash Wednesday — this day on the calendar or any day similarly marked by ashes—you and I are able to stand still in this pain, it seems to me, only because we do know that it is ‘productive’ pain.  We can receive it as gift, pushing us to pay attention to those places in ourselves and in our lives whose cries for healing have been ignored for perhaps far too long.  Indeed, with those crosses of ash we are visibly reminded of our frailty and our failings, urging us to stand still in it and to pay attention.  And with words of hope and promise we are told once more that this pain is not all there is.  That in Christ Jesus who died on another cross, there is forgiveness and there is healing.
It seems to me this is precisely what the prophet Joel was getting at when he spoke in God’s behalf to the people of Israel so long ago. This ‘pain’ — this weeping and mourning he so vividly described is a result of acknowledging that pain as we return to God. Indeed, this rending of the heart which is called for here is the act of standing still in that pain and returning to God with it and within it.  In our grief — in our ‘broken open hearts’ we claim responsibility for the pain and express our deep yearning for it to be different.  First between us and God.  And then between one another.  Oh yes, there is pain to be stood in on this day.  But it is also a day when healing begins and the promise is ours that our pain will one day be behind us as we stand still in God ‘s steadfast love and mercy. 

  • Does the practice of the ‘imposition of ashes’ enhance your experience of Ash Wednesday? Why or why not? How do those ashes point to ‘productive’ pain?
  • What ‘pain’ surfaces for you as you approach Ash Wednesday this year?
  • How does the promise of God’s grace, mercy and steadfast love make it possible for you to stand within that pain on this day or on any day?  Take those words apart and stand still within them.  God is gracious. God is merciful.  God is slow to anger. God is abounding in steadfast love.  Stand within them even longer than you stand within the pain. 

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