March 22, 2015
Love in the Face of Pain
I’ve been thinking about gifts a lot lately. Somewhat inspired by our guest preacher last week, Erin Littlestar, who said that God has given us great gifts of pleasure to experience food and intimacy, and that somehow, sometimes, we gate them up as a culture forget that God wants us to experience these gifts of joy and pleasure.
I’ve been thinking that the gifts we give one another, benefit the person beyond the giver. The lessons we teach our children, benefit more than just our children. The flip side of that is that the harm we do one another, harms more than just the person we do it to.
What about gifts that are not so obviously gifts, at first?
Richard Bach from his book Illusions: Adventures of a reluctant Messiah writes, “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.”
There are schools of thought that claim, that any hard thing, problem, tragedy, has a gift in it, that we called to ourselves, because we need it to grow.
Contemporary Japanese Author, Haruki Murakami, writes, “When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person that walked in. That’s what the storm is all about.” Painful gifts have the ability to transform us.
And then my favorite, Mary Oliver,
The Uses of Sorrow (In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift
What is the spiritual work around this type of alchemy, of interpreting something harmful as a gift? Or taking an opportunity around grief or trauma to give a gift.
We are leading up to a time in our holy season where a horrific thing happens, and then a glorious thing happens. Jesus is brutally crucified, then resurrects. We come face to face with the human potential for violence, and then God’s saving grace, to bring love out of the depth of pain and fear and hate. We even interpret the suffering of Jesus as great gift for us. This time of the year, we let this story hold us. We don’t have to hold it up, it carries us and we can lean/sink back into it.
Leading up to his suffering, Jesus began to predict what would happen to him, and few understood. But Mary, the woman with the alabaster Jar, got it. Two days before Passover, at a meal celebrating Jesus, she anoints Jesus with oil, as if to prepare his body for death.
But people protest. Shouldn’t she have sold that and given the money to the poor? What a waste!
They remember Jesus teaching on wealth and saying to sell all your belongings and give them to the poor, for it will be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle.
But Jesus affirms her choice, maybe even against his other teachings. “You can find my spirit with the poor after I am gone, but my body is still with you now.”
It must have been very meaningful to Jesus. This is the only time he says something along the lines of, “wherever the gospel is spread, this shall be spoken of.” The kind, loving, extravagant thing, that a woman did for Jesus, will be remembered as an act of good news. And it is, for we have read it today.
It is so significant, because in the face of potential violence and pain, this woman gives the gift of extravagant, bold love.
Jesus and the woman with the alabastar jar felt the pain of Jesus dying and suffering before it happened.
Our Psalm today might give insight to the grief that she, and even Jesus might have felt. Perhaps they had a 6th sense about the whole thing.
We can hear this Psalm from the place of sorrow in our own souls,
”Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.”
This is the internal suffering, but externally, the Psalmist continues, “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors; those who see me in the street flee from me.” Have you ever had that experience where you are just such a mess of grief and sadness, that you feel as if people avoid you?
The psalmist continues, “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.”
I have become like a broken vessel. Maybe like the broken vessel that Mary breaks as a gift for Jesus. Broken, pouring out, crying out to God, to her savior.
This is the most difficult to place to feel gratitude for God from, let alone feel grateful FOR the hardship, as some sort of gift. Surprisingly though, there can be a depth of gratitude and love that flows from us when we are broken vessels.
It is easy to love God when life is great. It is natural to feel grateful, when we are not suffering. But the deeper love, and deeper challenge is to hold Love in the face of pain. Yes, to allow ourselves to curse God, because God can handle it, but not curse each other. We are much more sensitive, even the toughest of us has an Achilles heal, words that can wound can cut deeply.
The deepest challenge is to hold Love in the face of pain, to allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of human feelings, but to not be sloppy about it, not let our feelings and needs hurt the people around us, to show love, still, in the face of pain and violence.
One of the best things I have ever heard about the resurrection was from a New Testament Scholar, Celene Lillie. Regarding the resurrection she says, “We can’t know exactly what happened, but we know that something happened.” Something so significant, I might add, that this story has lasted thousands of years. This kernel of truth, that God brings love out of suffering, hope out of despair, spring out of winter, and healing out of wounds. We can allow this story to hold us, this time of the year. We don’t have to hold it up. It can contain us, and allows us to rest into it.
It seems, that when it comes to love and grief, that two opposing things can be true at the same time. Yes, it is good to sell luxurious things and use the money for the poor. Yes, it is good to show extravagant love. Yes, these things oppose one another. Truth is fluid like this. Both, and. Not either or. What a gift. Let it be so. Amen