It is Mary Edmonds who writes to you today. It has been a whole year since our last correspondence. Our dear friend Fr. Ganz has kept me up to date as to how life is treating you. It seems as if we have both, and all, seen and experienced many joys as well as sorrows in these past 12 months. As a fellow pilgrim, you understand how life leads us along winding paths up mountains and down into valleys. Our dear friend Fr. Ganz knows that as well as anyone. I am happy to report that he is doing well and continues to heal.
Tara Ludwig mentioned that she corresponded with you last month, and she shared with me her thoughts on the reality of suffering. While absorbing those thoughts these past several weeks, I began to reflect on how we process suffering, and how we often try to avoid it.
Peregrinus, have you ever heard the phrase “I would give anything”? That is a bold statement. One that is rarely spoken with the seriousness that it holds. “I would give anything.” Anything? Really? Would you?
I remember a time many years ago (when I was still in my early 20s) when a weekend of unfortunate events pushed me to a place of throwing my hands up and saying, “I would give anything.” Would you allow me a few minutes to share me tale of woe with you, Pereginus?
Some friends of mine were going out of town for a long weekend, and I agreed to stay at their apartment in downtown Portland and take care of their dogs. So begins my unfortunate weekend.
On my first night there, I took the dogs out for a quick stroll before going to bed. When I got back to the apartment door at 10:30pm, I realized I was locked out. No keys, no phone, nothing but two rowdy dogs, and me in my pajamas. After about an hour of bothering several strangers to ask for help and borrowing a phone, I got a hold of a locksmith. The guy used a glorified coat hanger to let me back into a place where I don’t even actually live and then charged me an arm and a leg.
Saturday morning, I took the dogs out for a walk, paid the meter for my car that was parked on the street, and headed back up for a little more shut eye. I kept my eyes shut for a little too long and when I went back down to reload the meter, I already had a bright yellow ticket on my windshield. No wait, it wasn’t just one ticket, it was two tickets. One for expired parking, the other for an expired license plate. There goes my other arm and leg.
Sunday night, an awful smell woke me up at 3am. I turned on the light to find that one of the dogs had gotten sick… all over the apartment (I’ll spare you any details). So it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and I’m on my hands and knees cleaning up after a sick dog (preparation for motherhood?).
I go back to sleep for a few short hours and wake up to a Monday that has already started off on a bad note. I walk downstairs and outside into the rain. I cross the street to where my car is parked by a downtown park. I look at my car and think, “Oh geez, did I really leave my window down all night?” Nope, my window wasn’t rolled down. It was shattered. Glass everywhere. My car had been broken into. As if I expected this to happen (because I’m on a pretty impressive streak of bad luck), I rolled my eyes, turned around and walked right back into the apartment lobby to call the police. I filed a report, found out that it would not be covered by my insurance (if I had a third arm and leg, they would be gone too) and arranged for my windows to be replaced. When it rains, it pours (into your car that is missing half of the windows). I remember sitting in the downtown apartment lobby crying on the phone to my mom when the janitor takes a break from mopping to bring me a box of kleenex. At that moment she was a saint. I start planning a really long run to blow off some steam and then realize that my brand new, never worn running shoes (plus favorite rain jacket, gym bag, watch and ipod) were all stolen out of my car. Well, maybe I can relax by curling up and reading. Nope, they took my favorite copy of Les Miserables that I was re-reading (which coincidentally is about a man who was a thief and then turned his life around).
So to recap: locked out of the apartment, parking ticket, another ticket, sick dog, sleep deprivation, car broken into, barefoot running, no arms or legs.
I was seriously scared to walk down the street or turn a corner for a couple of days, afraid that a bus might hit me. Then I started thinking, “Things were pretty bad this weekend, but they could have been worse, right?” And I tried to come up with things that could have happened to put me in an even worse situation: my car could have been completely stolen, I could have been kidnapped, someone could have died.
And that led me to think about the times when we say, “I would give anything for ________ not to happen.” We always say that on the back end of things when something awful has already happened. What if we looked at that statement on the front end when awful things haven’t already happened?
For example: what if my car was completely stolen, or I was in a car accident that left me a quadriplegic (literally cost me my arms and legs), or what if one of my family members died… would I give up my measly iPod and my replaceable running shoes? Yes. Would I take the hit of a couple parking tickets? Yes. Would I clean up after a sick dog that isn’t even mine in the middle of the night? Sure.
So maybe all of this happened in the place of something worse happening.
How often do we try to negotiate with God, asking him to spare us from suffering? Bartering by offering something we would be willing to give (something mortal and finite).
I would give anything. But what would it look like to say “I would give anything” (even everything)… and then actually do it?
Roman 8 says:
1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.
There it is, Peregrinus. He gave everything, upfront, by sending his own Son as a sin offering. No negotiations required on our part. God preempted our plea and has given us freedom from sin and death. But we are not promised freedom from suffering.
As Tara mentioned, “suffering is a certainty of the human experience.” So surely you have had your own experiences of suffering, Peregrinus, that have beat you down, torn you apart, and led you to think, “I would give anything.”
Looking back 10 years later, I know that weekend of unfortunate events that felt at the time like suffering was really a series of inconveniences. It is important to differentiate between mere inconveniences and true suffering.
A family friend of mine experienced a loss that is unfathomable to me: the death of a child. True suffering. I would give anything to never experience that pain. She, no doubt, would give anything to take the pain of her ongoing suffering, decades later, away. It will always be there with her. It is a part of her human experience. She now uses that experience as a way to connect to other mothers who suffer the same. The suffering of a mother who has lost her child is unfathomably deep. The connection between mothers who can relate in their shared suffering is human connection at the deepest level.
We would prefer not to experience suffering. A world in which we have control and things go our way is what we seek. But a life of control is a thin life. It is often in the presence of suffering in which we are able to see the pure kindness of others, and the art of friendship comes to life. It is a gift that is given, and would never have been known in a controlled world that is preferred.
When one leaves the world characterized by “having control” or “not having control” and enters the world of relationship, that is when suffering becomes something centrally important for our growth; a means by which God teaches us, re-makes us, deepens us.
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
We are not given freedom from suffering; rather we share in his sufferings. BUT we also share in his glory. And if our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed… well that gives a whole new perspective on the glory and grace of our resurrected Savior.
The day before Fr. Ganz’s fall that began this new path of suffering that he is facing, I sent the following scripture to him. How fitting it was for the days, weeks and months to come in which I (and surely many of us) were grappling with how to respond to such a terrible accident. I continue going back to this scripture as a prayer over him, and a hope to hold onto during what has been a confusing time.
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As a young 20-something, that weekend of dog sitting in the downtown apartment felt like the worst; even unfair. I’ve come to understand, Peregrinus, that as I continue down this path of life, suffering continues to find me (as it finds everyone) along the way, often in deeper more painful ways. And I continue to try to find ways to elude it; I continue offering all sorts of things that I would give in order to make it go away. But we are not promised freedom from suffering. In fact, we are promised that we will share in Christ’s suffering so that we may also share in his glory. My prayer is to learn to confront suffering, and to allow the Spirit to intercede on my behalf, so that I may suffer well and grow through it. Whatever your present suffering might be, Peregrinus, I pray that you might glimpse the glory that has, will be, and is even now being revealed.
Your Fellow Pilgrim,