This familiar passage runs contrary to the way the world thinks, doesn’t it?
What I mean to say is this. We tend to think of ‘suffering’ (or ‘tribulation,’ as another translation has it) as somehow the opposite of being ‘blessed.’
For who among us has not thought, spoken, prayed or overheard another speaking aloud the wondering,
“What have I done to deserve this?”
Or, as I heard repeatedly expressed as a son watched up close the untimely suffering and death of his mother,
“She doesn’t deserve this.”
And she didn’t.
So it is that once more I have come to this.
That perhaps this as much as anything else, sets our way of thinking about God apart from any other theology out there.
For on the one hand, we do not believe that God imposes suffering upon us as some sort of punishment. At the same time, we know that suffering cannot be avoided. No matter how much we know and believe that God loves us. And yet, we do know that while God does not cause it, God will surely and always use it to build up God’s beloved wherever and however we find ourselves.
So this is how it has been for me. And this is why you have not heard from me in this forum in a couple of weeks as much of my energy has been called elsewhere:
I received a call from a precious friend Wednesday of Holy Week. She was in the emergency room where a CT scan revealed that she likely had cancer and that it had metastasized. Her voice broke as she shared this horribly unexpected news.
Before the afternoon was done, I made my way to her where she was still trying to digest the news. But you know, she said to me then, “I am not afraid to die.” Oh, she had plenty of worries and concerns to sort out in this life, but ultimately, she spoke of having no fear. Indeed, it wasn’t many days later before she picked up her head and looking around mused not “Why me?” But, rather, “Why not me?” Indeed, she had known heart-rending suffering before. She knew it comes with both peril and gift. And she knew that this was not a kind of punishment deserved, but, rather, part of the walk we are all given to traverse.
I was nearby for all that came next. In those next weeks I witnessed up close a lot of suffering, both physical and otherwise. In the end, this last part of the journey would not take long for it was a mere 5 weeks from diagnosis to her dying on a Sunday afternoon in May with the hands of both her sons on her head as the final words of blessing of the ‘commendation of the dying’ were spoken.
And I thought this as I stood alongside:
Some suffering is simply not redemptive. At least not the physical sort this beloved one would have had to endure without the sort of medical intervention that was thankfully, readily available to her. And oh, from what I can tell, from this short ending stretch of this one’s earthly journey, at least for her I did not witness the truth of the promise to which Paul points today, although I cannot fully know what played in her own mind and heart as her life here came to a close. Perhaps if there had been more time. Perhaps then.
And yet, setting this piece of this one experience aside, this comes to mind as well.
Some suffering does bring powerful gifts:
- For sometimes it can open us up to deeper community.
- Often it can build in us empathy for others on the journey.
- And surely it can build a kind of muscle in us for the next time we encounter it, which we can then lean into and lean on as we make our way through.
Indeed, for all of the hardness of this time, all of these and more have been true for me over these last weeks and months. And as for the last one I name above, I know this to be true from other times, from similar journeys travelled and because of the many ways in which I have been able to access what I have seen and felt and heard and experienced in times before.
So I know that this is so:
In all of this, it is often so that ‘suffering produces endurance, and endurances produces character, and character produces hope, hope that does not disappoint.’
As for me in those last days before a beloved friend recently decided it was time to let go, I saw this sort of suffering which often bears such gifts best and truest in others who walked alongside. In those who willingly again and again allowed themselves to feel the pain of another in ways that were born of hard earned empathy — no doubt their own previous times of suffering producing endurance producing character producing hope.
- In nurses who had experienced significant losses of their own when they were young and so were able to offer a caring presence that one who had not been where they had been perhaps would not have been able to do.
- In her primary care doctor who came to visit — not having ‘hospital privileges’ — but coming anyway and standing with the family, offering wisdom and kindness.
- In friends and co-workers of the one then dying who made their way, even to me, a stranger, and extended such kindness. And who continue to do so.
- In one who showed up with a meal the night I suddenly found myself staying the night at the hospital and in others who left casseroles and cookies on the doorstep, recognizing the significance of the loss of a beloved friend.
- And for me, yes, a congregation which simply let me be where I needed to be for that time.
Through it all, in the end, this is what I know for sure and this is the promise Paul offers now:
Whatever else may be true, when we go through such times, we do not come out of them the same. And by God’s grace-filled promise, in many cases, we are not worse off for having endured such as this and so much more, although such times do take a toll and I will be the first to acknowledge this is likely not always the case for everyone. And yet, I have known it to be so that in all likelihood, we will be better, truer, stronger than before. If not at first, then before too long:
- For my own experience is that walking through such times eventually brings wisdom.
- And in the midst of anxious days and nights unexpected peace.
- And that the resulting hope which is extended and received for this world and beyond is a gift which does not disappoint.
And so it is that I wonder with you now:
- How is it that you receive the promise which Paul articulates in today’s section of Romans? Where and how have you found it to be true in your own experience or in the experience of those you serve? Are there times and places where you would argue that the promises offered here did not or do not hold? How wo you reconcile that in your heart? How might you reconcile that in your preaching?
- I have interacted with these words about suffering from the perspective of an individual and surely one can argue that Paul means them in this way. And yet, his pronouns are all plural. Might this be better heard or differently heard as a promise for the community? How, in fact, might this promise be tenacious gift for the congregation you serve?
- Indeed, what suffering has been yours, individually and together? And how has this resulted in endurance, character, and hope that does not disappoint? Beginning with the experience of individuals, how might this be extrapolated to uplift all of us together? What might that sound like in your preaching? More importantly, how might that promise be lived into in your life together?