Wednesday, June 2, 2010

world of hurt

For some reason, I have become more and more aware recently of the tremendous number of people walking around in pain. Not physical pain - though there's certainly plenty of that, but mental/spiritual pain. My wife does not share the details of her counseling sessions, and I don't really want her to. It's not that I don't care about the lives of the parishioners, I just don't want to have to keep any more secrets than necessary. But I do know how she acts or seems to feel after counseling others. There is a need for her to process what she hears, and I can be a sounding board for that. In that process, I do get some information about what's going on, but not enough details for it to feel like gossip. Maybe it's wrong, I don't know. I do know that I try very hard no to let any of these details affect the way I treat or feel about anyone. It has been quite an eye-opener to realize how many folks are really hurting. There are people who seem to be happy and well-adjusted, but inside they are suffering. I know that's not a big revelation in and of itself, but I suppose what's striking to me is the scale of the suffering. It seems to be a part of our human condition in this world - we suffer. All of us at least some of the time suffer. I am really lucky in that my suffering has been quite limited to this point. A broken heart or two on the way to finding my soul mate. A couple miscarriages. The deaths of grandparents and some friends. All sad, but all typical experiences that most folks find along life's path.

Some folks' lives are pretty much a train wreck, and the wreckage is in plain view. It is hard for me to relate to lives ruined by alcoholism, marital infidelity, untimely deaths of spouses and children, economic misfortune, and the list goes on.

Others' lives contain more subtle suffering. A marriage is lifeless, two people surviving in the same house without sharing themselves with each other. Quiet resentment constantly simmering. Distrust and shame between two people that pledged to spend their lives together as one flesh. But to the outside world, they seem like a normal, happy couple.

One of the drawbacks to being the only pastor on staff is that there's no one else to help you navigate the intricate relationships among the parishioners. Especially in the beginning of our time here, it is hard to know whom to trust. Now that we've been here a year, we have a slightly better idea of the different personalities here, but there is still much to learn. As we find out more about the sources of dysfunction in this place (and all churches have some level of dysfunction, of course), I suppose more suffering past and present will come to light. I think it's important not to get overwhelmed by it. As hard as it is to discuss, bringing it out into the light will help us move forward.

I don't like it when folks try to dismiss life's suffering with happy God-talk. What I mean is the idea that we should always be happy because we have Jesus who promises us eternal life with God, so why should we ever be sad? "Smile, Jesus loves you!" Well of course he does. But the acknowledgement of suffering does not indicate a lack of faith. Happy God-talk is not compassion. It is Polyanna foolishness most of the time. I am not going to be happy when I see others suffering (at least I hope I won't - there are some folks who I probably would want to see suffer - but then when the actual suffering comes, I'd probably feel bad). Empathy and compassion are traits of Jesus Christ, who we are supposed to emulate, and displaying these traits doesn't always feel good.

But we are supposed to have joy, and I think this is achievable. I say achievable as if it's something we can get through our own effort, but I think it's a gift. Along with the sad realities that we learn about in the lives of those we are coming to love, there is much to be joyful about, even beyond the joy of our adoption as sons and daughters of the most high God. There are babies born and couples renewing their wedding vows. There are moments of grace in worship and in fellowship together. For me, there is laughter and fellowship in Sunday school and at covered dish dinners. And there is joy in watching my family try hard to live into what God has planned for us. We fall, but God picks us up. One year into my wife's first appointment, I feel like we are in the right place for now.