Lessons Learned from a Virus

We are reminded of some rather important things during a time like this;

  • There is no such thing as “Business as usual”
  • We tend to act as we have power that we do not possess. Yet, when honest we know that we are not in control
  • It is time to reflect on our lifestyle… time to evaluate our priorities… time to determine what is excess
  • The rest of the world has more experience with suffering than we do
  • We need one another… we are created for community
  • Grace is more important than blame
  • Faith is more important than anxiety
  • Sickness nor death will have the final word

Job: No Matter Your Circumstances

I have been paying close attention to the World Cup.  It is no surprise that we have already heard of unsportsmanlike conduct and referee mistakes.  But, we have also witnessed incredible team chemistry and impressive feats of skill.  (Or impressive feats with feets).

While the world wages war in winter on the pitch in South Africa, we experience summer.  I find myself mowing the lawn, weeding the gardens, staking tomatoes, grilling sliders, and making smoothies.  The garden is full of sage, thyme, and rosemary that I mix with garlic into little bison patties and eat with muenster and cheddar.  And if you have never tried the stuff that comes out of a blender when you mix fruit, ice, and yogurt – its time.

During all this, I have been reading the Old Testament book of Job.  Job is known for his suffering and the people around him who were full of counsel and advice.  An interesting time to read Job since I don’t feel like I am suffering and my friends are usually able to give some pretty good advice (well, some of them).  At any rate, watching the World Cup, eating sliders and smoothies, or reading about someone else’s suffering doesn’t feel like suffering.

But Job is a timely book that has a way of working its way into your soul no matter your circumstances.  For one, Job knows that we are not defined by our stuff.  Life is not about prosperity or the lack of it.  Job knows that this is not a new concern. Some claim the book of Job to be the first book of the bible ever written.  Whether or not this is true, Job is evidence that this danger has been around for a long time.

Like all books we want to read Job with what the author had in mind.  While it may be true that Job wants us to recognize that blessings are not directly related to goodness.  That suffering and pain may not be related to behavior.  That life is not consistently fair.  Job may also want us to be asking whether we serve God for God’s sake or for our own profit?  Perhaps Job wants us to explore our tendency for self centeredness.

If weeds overtake or summer heat scorches the garden.  If the lawn mower or the blender break down.  If the USA is eliminated from the World Cup earlier than I would like.  If my friends start telling me that these things are my fault.  I hope that I will hear Job above the distractions reminding me that it is not about me at all.  As with Job, it is about God.  It is always about God.

The Reality of Suffering

A wise friend of mine, Charles Munson, once said, there are two kinds of people.  “There are those who have suffered, and those who will.”  Who can dispute this?  Suffering is reality.  We will meet people who suffer.  While I can not dispute that suffering exists, I cannot claim to be an expert.  We are unable to prevent it.  It is a reminder that we are not in control.

Some glimpses of the world are convincing that the great religion of the day is the pursuit of happiness and the absence of suffering.  We try to dodge suffering as if it were not nearly as important as pleasure.  Suffering is perceived as an evil to be avoided or drugged away at any cost.  The world lies.  Pleasure, happiness, and lack of pain are not the most important things.

I always thought that I’d be uncomfortable at funerals, in hospitals, at nursing homes.  Instead, I have found that the opposite is true.  These are natural places to find people willing to discuss what is truly important.

Suffering can not be overlooked as a source for meaning.  Suffering reminds us that reputation and image are not everything. Suffering reveals who we really are and helps to shape us into who we will be.  Suffering grants perspective and wisdom.  Perhaps, in suffering, we may gain more than at any other time of life.

Helping those who suffer does not happen quickly.  It is more like a journey where we find ourselves walking alongside a suffering friend.  We listen.  We offer support.  We pray.  We remind sufferers who they are, that they belong, and why they belong.  We want to help.  Yet, as Eugene Peterson suggests, it is better not to offer advice too quickly.

Instead, he suggests that no matter how insightful we think we are, 1) we may not really understand the full nature of our friend’s problems.  2) Our friends may not want our advice.  And 3) Suffering may transform our friend’s life in remarkable fashion that we can not anticipate.  Instead of focusing on preventing suffering, which we will not be very successful at anyway, we should be willing to enter into the suffering.  We must stop feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and (if they allow us) join them.

This does not exempt us from attempting to help those who suffer. Yet, it may prevent us from making the mistake of thinking we can help them on our own.

The Gospel account at Gethsemane addresses some of Jesus’ struggle and suffering.  The cast of the story includes Jesus, his disciples, and the ever-present Father.  It is important to note that here is found not only real people and an actual place, but a God who intervenes in real situations and actual places.  This becomes especially important in a context where suffering is involved.  Certainly it is assuring to know that God does work in such situations.

The Gethsemane experience serves as a helpful context for our own response to suffering.  The focus of the story is on Jesus and his struggle with emotion.  Most importantly, the decision that he is to make in regard to his Father’s will.  The situation is so distressing that he is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.

How does Jesus handle this time of suffering?  He repeatedly prayed that the situation would pass and requested the prayers of his disciples.  In fact, a large part of the focus here is on prayer.  It appears that Jesus frequented this place in order to consult and commune with the Father.  On this occasion, Jesus desired to pray alone, praying intimately to the Father concerning the crisis at hand.  He continually sought the assurance that others were praying for him and expressed disappointment when they did not.  Finally, Jesus prayed in his time of trial that his Father’s will, not his own, be done.

From Gethsemane, there is a sense that prayer is not to be kept on reserve for crisis situations.  Perhaps we could go so far as to say that consistent communication with the Father provides the necessary strength to prevent suffering from overwhelming us during times of weakness.

It is obvious that Jesus struggled in the garden.  How does he avoid distraction?  Two things emerge easily from the episode: He remains in communication with the Father; and he submits to his Father’s will.  This passage does not eliminate the reality of suffering, instead it acknowledges it.  We are reminded that God speaks to us in even the most distressing situations.

No one is expected to greet suffering and death eagerly as if we are about to learn something.  Nevertheless, death is our teacher.  Death and suffering remind us of our vulnerability.  We are surrounded by evidence that we are not in control.  There is an authority greater than we are.  In the journey of grief, after recognizing our limitations, after our illusions have fallen away, we realize that all we have been given is gift.

My friend Charles was right.  Reality guarantees suffering.  We will encounter suffering.  Real situations, real people, real suffering.   May we receive the words of the Gospel that we might grow through suffering and walk with others who suffer.  May we listen intently for words from the Father.  May we strive to maintain communion with God.  May we freely request the prayers of others in crisis situations and may we always seek his will over our own.