Monday, March 19, 2007

Lenten reflections on pain and transformation

A few random thoughts during this Lenten journey. A few weeks ago our church had a men's breakfast, and our topic was how pain shapes us in our spirituality. One comment made by our group facilitator, Doug Stewart (who has a chapter in this book), was that generally speaking, if we are not transformed by our pain, we will transmit our pain to others. I thought that was pretty profound.

So we talked about how we tend to avoid our pain or distract ourselves from it. Or we work to overcome or fix our pain. I commented that after losing my father to suicide, one thing that was helpful to me was rediscovering and practicing the spiritual discipline of lament. Walter Brueggemann says that the Hebrew psalms of lament were a way of ordering their grief and verbalizing their sense of loss and protest with how the world is and bringing these emotions before God. This certainly connects with Jesus' beatitude that blessed are those who mourn, who get outside what's going on inside, for the simple practical reason that unless we externalize our interior pain, we are not in a position or posture to receive comfort, whether from God or anyone else.

And something else that I observed was that when I was researching my grieving book, what came up over and over was that Western Christians tend to have a poorly developed theology of suffering. We see suffering as abnormal, something to be fixed or therapeutically overcome. In contrast, for the vast majority of Christians throughout history and around the world, suffering is simply a fact of life. And I think it was Henri Nouwen that said that our experience of suffering, pain and loss should help us have greater solidarity with the suffering of the global church, as well as Christ himself. That we should not see loss or suffering as unusual, but normative.

Anyway, I've been musing on this a bit this Lent. I was just at a conference where I saw a friend whose ten-month-old son also has Down syndrome; he was born last year right around our son Elijah's first birthday. My friend mentioned that our family blog, especially a first-birthday post by my wife, had been very helpful to her, that it gave her hope that things would be okay even if they weren't what she had anticipated for her son. So I was glad to hear that our experience had been an unexpected encouragement to her.

I'm curious - what do you do to prevent transmitting your pain to others? How have you been transformed by your pain, your loss, your disappointments?


Anonymous said...

I think remembering God and his goodness is one way to remain still during suffering, not trying to escape it. Also, I am learning to listen for the love mixed in with the awkward words that others speak to me while I am suffering. Their words rarely help; their love means everything, though.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful post, Al. A dear friend of mine just committed suicide in January and I'm not surprised at my grief, but rather my anger at him. I'm thinking about Philip Yancy's _What's So Amazing about Grace_ and the concept of forgiveness as a grace has been coming back to me during this lenten season.

Every Square Inch said...

I've had some painful moments in my life...I guess you only have to live long enough before you'll experience your fair share. When you're in this painful times, it is difficult not to transmit the pain to others. The temptation to bitterness when you compare your estate to that of others is great - "how come they get to be happy and I have to go through this?"

I've found the only recourse is to take our pain and struggle to God - lament, cry out or simply cry but God is honored by us bringing our pain to him. The other very helpful aspect for me is to see the trial in light of the gospel - the very source of our pain reminds us that we live in a broken world, and we can thank God that he has prepared another place for us at great cost to himself.

Thanks for your thoughtful post - it's a rich topic and worthy of so much more discussion.