Last Wednesday night in my Divorce Care small group, we were talking about how much it means to share our experiences with each other in the group specifically because we are living similar realities. I mentioned how suffering brings a depth to life. When tragedy, or crisis, or deep sorrow comes, life gets really simple. Our priorities change. And the people we want around us are those who have gone through their own brand of suffering. Life has a way of stripping away our carefully laid plans and we are left scrambling for composure. People who have lived in the scramble are welcomed companions in the mess that follows.
Brennan Manning, in Ruthless Trust explains how life sometimes feels in the messiness:
“The bromides, platitudes, and exhortation to trust God from nominal believers who have never visited the valley of desolation are not only useless; they are textbook illustrations of unmitigated gall. Only someone who has been there, who has drunk the dregs of our cup of pain, who has experienced the existential loneliness and alienation of the human condition, dares whisper the name of the Holy to our unspeakable distress. Only that witness is credible; only that love is believable.
The enormous challenge of trust is exacerbated for those in a state of depression; those trapped in a loveless marriage, hanging together for the sake of the children but seeing no way out; those who long for a friend but seem condemned to loneliness; those who cannot make a success of anything to which they turn their hands; those who long to live a good life but feel hopelessly defeated by some vice that they lack the ability to conquer; those whose faith, prayer, and service toward God, having begun with high ideals and generous self-giving, have since become meaningless–faith no longer offering assurance and comfort, prayer enveloped in darkness, ministry reduced to perfunctory routine.
And the suffering–always we come back to the suffering. How is trust to be conjured by the three million refugees who water the roads and rice paddies with their tears; those who live in countries where to be black is not to be beautiful but to be bastard; the twenty thousand homeless living in the streets of Calcutty, who build little fires to cook scraps of scavenged goods, defecate against curbstones, and curl up against a wall to sleep; those who are destroying their bodies and souls with alcohol, crack cocaine, and heroin; those whose blood reddens the earth from Kosovo to Northern Ireland to the streets of your hometown; those children with swollen bellies in the Sudan; the twelve-year-old (and younger) prostitutes, male and female, in New York City and elsewhere; those studying in the decaying schoolhouses in Appalachia?
Perhaps the reader will suspect that I am overstating the problem, exaggerating the enormous difficulty for the sake of dramatic effect. Not for those who have walked the long and lonely road to Calvary. Not for those who have endured unbearable anguish and refused to give way to despair.
The skeptic might speak to Laura, a woman whose letter arrived in my mailbox this morning: “The one thing I long to hear from God is, ‘Well done.’ But I know he’ll never say it to me because I’m so lazy and stupid and selfish. I’m such an ungrateful brat. I’m a total failure. Do yourself a favor, Brennan. Crumple up this letter and forget about me.” The skeptic might also talk to those women who were sexually abused by their father, their uncle, or their brother as children and who are now consumed by rage, shame, impotence, and self-hatred. Or to Anne Donovan, as she held her dead baby in her arms.
For that matter, speak to me sitting on a curbstone along General Meyer Avenue here in New Orleans. I am intoxicated after a relapse with alcohol. My clothes are in tatters; I reek with rancid body odor; I am unshaven. My face and belly are bloated, my eyes bloodshot. I am clutching a fifth of Smirnoff vodka–only a few ounces left. My marriage is collapsing, my friends are near despair, and my honor is broken. My brain is scrambled, my mind a junkyard of broken promises, failed dreams, unkept resolutions.
Fifty yards behind me is the detox center of F. Edward Hebert hospital. As I take the last swig, I shudder at the pain and heartache I have caused. Going to A.A. meetings, working the Twelve Steps, talking to my sponsor, reading the Big Book, praying–these have all worked for others. Why have they not worked for me? I know I will never hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Minor panic: no more booze. Reaching in my pocket, I find a five-dollar bill. Staggering down four blocks, I find a convenience store, still open at midnight. I buy a pint of Taaka vodka. Cheaper. I retrace my steps, weaving across the avenue to reclaim my seat on the curb. I do not want the lifesaving treatment of detox. I continue drinking. My eyes fill with tears. Now I am crying, Abba’s drunken child. “Jesus, where are you?” Soon I pass out with the half-full pint resting on my chest. When I wake up the next morning, I learn that two staff members had come out on the avenue and carried me into detox.
How do men and women “clap their hands and shout with a voice of joy to God?” (Psalm 47:2) in the midst of pain, suffering, heartache, and throbbing despair? Is it possible to endure and eventually move beyond the bleak and melancholy landscape of evil and destruction?
After Saul/Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Jesus said to Ananias, “I myself will show him how much he himself has to suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16). Anyone God uses significantly is always deeply wounded. It is no coincidence that the title of the latest book by Michael Ford on the life and ministry of Henri Nouwen is Wounded Prophet. We are, each and every one of us, insignificant people whom God has called and graced to use in a significant way. In his eyes, the high-profile ministries are no more significant than those that draw little or no attention and publicity. On the last day, Jesus will look us over not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.
Where do we take the miasma of pain, suffering, and evil? Philosophical speculation and rational reflection suffer shipwreck on the shoals of the enormous difficulty. The only territory left to explore rivets our gaze on the vast, unbounded ocean of the glory of God. Irenaeus, a disciple of the apostle John, becomes our guide in his five-volume work Against the Heresy of Gnosticism. The oft-quoted first clause of one compound sentence reads, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” But the less-quoted second clause reads, “and the life of the human consists in beholding God.”
Friday was a loooooong day for me. I was riding out to work to get my check, get it cashed and then would ride the 4 and one-half miles back to work for my shift. The bike being my only means of transportation. I stopped at a traffic light and as I began to pedal, the back axel broke. So I had to walk the bike back to my house, and then walk to work. I walked 12 and one-half miles on Friday. Once I got my check, I found that it was short due to paid time off which hadn’t been applied and that causes problems…… After work that night, a co-worker gave me a ride home and then a good friend gave me a ride on Saturday.
I must confess…. I have battled deep physical fatigue and discouragement this past weekend. So I decided to rest today, which is Sunday. I’m back into survival mode.
Survival is a process beginning with stopping, and allowing your body to rest. The emotional side of our brain pushes us to find safety and security, yet in the wilderness, our mental map is contrary to the real map, so our tendency is to rush about in desperation, clinging to the hope that comfort is just over the next tree covered hill. Stopping allows us to arrest the energy-depleting action of unfocussed action.
So I took a Sabbath on Sunday. Rested. Watched football…. which is rest for me. I slept late and didn’t go anywhere until the evening, when I walked to McD’s to eat, and then to the library to check my mail. Somewhere in the process, a couple of dear friends contacted me. One by text and the other by IM on the computer. They mourned with me. These friends helped me see another, often forgotten facet of surviving the wilderness experience.
Although it feels like we are lost in a wilderness of circumstances sometimes. There is always Someone who both knows exactly where we are, and yet continues to seek for us at the same time. Jesus wonderfully told about the searching nature of God in Luke 15. God searches for his valuable sheep, coin, and son with tenacity all the while knowing where they are. My friends were the hands of God reaching for me to give me rest and comfort. They each live in a wilderness area. And truthfully, we are each in the process of finding our way out.
Actually, the child of God is constantly in the process of finding… of getting healthier. Although we certainly could be said to be found and are healed, the ongoing process of living is that of finding our way and healing our soul. Suffering takes away our props until we have only the “unbounded ocean of the glory of God” upon which to sail, as Manning put it.
In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes that one characteristic of survivors is that they often become members of search and rescue units after their wilderness experience. As a matter of fact, survivors are ready to help other lost souls while they are, themselves lost. The very thought of helping others is an act of surviving. It pulls us outside of ourselves into the continual process of finding our way. I have personally found this to be true of both myself and that of others.
This blog is meant to help other lost souls know they are not alone. God knows where you are and is looking for you. Hopefully, my experience can give you some clarity, or comfort that you are not the only one who seems lost. In twelve step groups, they call this “giving your sobriety away.” We find our way and continue to heal as we are honest with others about our experience.
We take each other’s hand…
to just be there…
to listen with unrushed tenderness…
to mourn with those who mourn.
The time to act will come, and we will talk about that….