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Transforming Pain

Sermon - 10/11/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Lamentations 3:1-24

The scripture text for our reflection this morning comes from the third chapter of Lamentations.  You will find it on page 669 in your pew Bibles, and I do invite you to follow along.  I'm going to read from a different translation, however.  It never hurts to compare and contrast, I think it adds to our understanding of scripture when we read different translations. 

This morning I've chosen the Contemporary English Version to read because I find it especially provocative in the language that is used by these translators of this very challenging passage:

I have suffered much because God was angry. 2He chased me into a dark place, where no light could enter. 3I am the only one he punishes over and over again, without ever stopping.

4God caused my skin and flesh to waste away, and he crushed my bones. 5He attacked and surrounded me with hardships and trouble; 6he forced me to sit in the dark like someone long dead.

7God built a fence around me that I cannot climb over, and he chained me down. 8Even when I shouted and prayed for help, he refused to listen. 9God put big rocks in my way and made me follow a crooked path.

10God was like a bear or a lion waiting in ambush for me; 11he dragged me from the road, then tore me to shreds.  12God took careful aim and shot his arrows

13straight through my heart. 14I am a joke to everyone-- no one ever stops making fun of me. 15God has turned my life sour.

16He made me eat gravel and rubbed me in the dirt. 17I cannot find peace or remember happiness. 18I tell myself, "I am finished! I can't count on the LORD to do anything for me."

19Just thinking of my troubles and my lonely wandering makes me miserable. 20That's all I ever think about, and I am depressed.  21Then I remember something that fills me with hope.

22The Lord's kindness never fails! If he had not been merciful, we would have been destroyed.  23The LORD can always be trusted to show mercy each morning. 24Deep in my heart I say, "The LORD is all I need; I can depend on him!"

 

Now, you're used to hearing me expound on the Scriptures to provide some enlightenment to the text.  But this morning I'm not going to do that just yet (I will get there).  But this morning we want to take this scripture and just let it sink in.  To spend a little bit of time in meditation and silence as we all struggle to find the meaning, and answers to difficult questions in life.

Our New Celebration Singers will lead us in song, after which we'll have a period of silence, and then they'll bring us out of that silence.

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So, be honest -- is anyone thinking "Is God like that?".  Is that passage really in the Bible?  The first time I read this text, I thought "Wow, this is some serious pain and grief".  I could make light about it, identifying with the Bruins or something [the Ducks beat the Bruins the day prior to this sermon], but it's not that kind of text.

April did a wonderful job for us last Sunday, introducing us to the book of Lamentations.  I'll not repeat that, except to note for the sake of those who weren't here last week that the book of Lamentations is a poem, or actually 5 poems, one for each chapter.  And the first 4 poems are acrostic poems.  Know what an acrostic poem is?  It's a poem in which the first line begins with a letter of the alphabet, in alphabetical order.

The first two poems have 22 verses, because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  And the 4th chapter does too.  Chapter 3 has 66 verses.  Why?  It repeats each letter 3 times.  So the first 3 verses all begin with 'alpha'.  Kind of like "A" is for Arizona Wildcats, "B" is for Bruins of UCLA, "C" is the California Bears, "D" is for the Ducks that will rule them all J.  Now that's poetry!  It can bring tears to your eyes J.

It's pretty hard to reproduce that kind of poetry in a translation like this.  What isn't hard to see in the translation is the depth of the pain and the suffering.  Pure grief, as April put it for us last Sunday.  And in the case of Lamentations, it is the overwhelming sorrow of the survivors after the unthinkable and total devastation of Jerusalem (when the Babylonians destroyed that city and took the people into exile).

Now, human nature being what it is, we find it difficult to identify with collective pain, the pain of an entire nation.  The plight of 46 million uninsured people in our country may not move us, but when we have a friend who needs help, someone who is struggling to pay their medical bills, then we don't hesitate to help -- to hold fundraisers, to write letters, to do whatever it takes.  When we hear that story of the young woman who was denied a liver transplant because her insurance company considered it to be experimental, and then reversed themselves only because of the public outcry.  But it was too late.  She died within hours of the reversal.  Then we are outraged, and moved to do something.

We know war is a terrible tragedy, but it is not until we know the individuals killed or maimed and we see the anguish of those families struggling with that pain that we can feel it, at a very personal level.

When I was at Yad Vashem last year in Jerusalem, the Holocaust memorial, walking through the exhibits was an incredibly somber and powerful experience.  But it was not until I entered into the Children's Memorial that the weight of it all really hit me. 

That memorial could be contained in its entirety right here, in this sanctuary.  A building all to itself.  You go in, and it's very dark and filled with mirrors.  The only light is from candles.  You can't tell if there's 10 or 100 or 1,000, as they're reflecting off of the mirrors.  And you walk through in complete silence as you hear the names of over 1,000,000 children being read in an un-ending loop.  I have no idea it takes, but know this:  it takes a long time.

You hear each of those names one at a time, and in the dark glass, you see faces that look remarkably like your own.

 

And boy, does it move you.  It's hard.  It's hard to make that walk. 

So the poet of Lamentations describes the suffering of the nation not by the numbers afflicted, not by all the buildings destroyed, not by all that mass suffering, but by the suffering of a single individual.  The daughter of Zion in the first two chapters, and here in chapter three, the strong man.  Perhaps a soldier whose strength only becomes cause for ridicule as one who is now helpless.

The last three verses of the text will sound familiar to you because it's an inspiration for a hymn, you will find it on the insert for our "New Love, New Mercy" stewardship campaign:  "But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope that steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God's mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  "The Lord is my portion", says my soul, therefore I will have hope".

Great is God's faithfulness.  And so it provides a powerful witness in the midst of enormous pain and suffering, that there is always hope.  Even when all the evidence may be to the contrary, there still remains hope because of God's faithfulness.

Now, from the perspective of the poet, the devastation is so great, the only explanation he can find is that it must be God's doing.  And so in the midst of his deepest despair, the strong man cries out 'God, how can you be so cruel?'  And it's an accusation for sure, but more than anything else, it is the expression of pure grief. 

Like the six year-old who does not yet understand the frailties of life and blames Mom or Dad for the death of a pet put to sleep that has been injured or is ill:  "You killed Muffin!".  The wise parent instinctively knows what is needed is not to defend your actions, but to comfort your child.

So the strong man shakes his fist at God like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and when all of his rage has been poured out there for all to see, the one accused is still there.  Like the father of the Prodigal Son, waiting with outstretched arms.

And having gotten it all off of his chest, unloading all of his theological garbage and accusations blaming God for his suffering, then, and only then, precisely then, the strong man and poet alike realizes that what he has charged is not God's character after all.  That it is simply not God's nature to abandon anyone, and certainly not God's people.  And so there remains amidst all the ruins of the city and the devastation of the survivors the one thing that keeps them going:  hope.

Among all the criticism of the Nobel Committee for the selection of President Obama for the Peace Prize, it has been suggested that the one thing he has done in such a young administration without any evidence to warrant this prize, the one thing he has done if not for people in this country then for people in many parts around the world has been to give them hope.  That there is a different way of being in this world.  One should never sell short the importance of hope.

Now, I'd like to tell you that this is where the book of Lamentations ends, you know, we always want to end on an up note, the positive, on hope.  But, I have to be honest, chapters 4 and 5 pick up the lamentation again, the grief and the sorrow.  And so these verses of hope rise above the text in a sea of sorrow like a small island in a vast ocean.  They remind us that life is a mixture of pain and joy.  Of grief and hope.  And not every ending is a happy one.

A week before Christmas last year, as many of you know, our daughter Paulina when through some pretty intense back surgery and her parents through some very intense anxiety.  I think most parents can identify with that.  She was released on the morning of Christmas Eve, and being the stubborn daughter of her father (I don't know where that comes from J), she insisted on coming to the late Christmas Eve service.  And so a little before 11:00 p.m., I walked her down that aisle, Paulina with her walker, walking very carefully, father next to her watching very closely.  She could not sit, and so I laid her down right there in that front pew very gingerly.

Sitting right behind her, I saw University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer and his wife.  Now, I have always been a great admirer of President Frohnmayer.  I think he's done a great job.  I know there's been some criticism, but now a much deserved retirement, continues to teach in the Law School.  He gave one of the best speeches on the issue of religious freedom I've ever heard at the Interfaith Breakfast a couple years ago.  So I've always admired him.

But it was the way he and his wife dealt with the tragedy of their family (that I think most of you know about) -- a rare genetic disorder that took the life of their first daughter.  Then their second daughter.  And how they have changed that pain and used it as a catalyst for hope, to create a program to find a cure for the disease.

As I carefully lay my daughter on the pew, all I could think about was their third daughter, who carries those same genes.  I don't know what was in their minds (probably something entirely different) but I know that night I had a lump in my throat as I gave praise to God for the birth of a child, and tears on my cheeks as I sang and shared the life of Christ with my prone but very vibrant daughter. 

Life can be so wonderful, and so unbearable.  Were it not for the former, who could survive the latter?  Were it not for the joy, how would we get through the pain?

Even though Lamentations may fall back into the bottomless pit of despair, must we?  Can we, instead of being defined by our pain, transform it into something good and life-affirming?  Can we not build on that hope, and count on the love?  Draw on that faithfulness promised by God to give birth through our pain to something far greater?

In his book, "The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered", Richard Rohr says that the litmus test to determine who has a healthy or unhealthy religion is this:  "What do they do with their pain?  And even their daily little disappointments?  Do they transform it, or do they transmit it?"

You see, if your faith does not help you transform your pain, says Rohr, it is junk religion.  And we all know people who transmit their pain.  They're not fun people to be around.  You know, life is miserable, so the way they make it better is by making you miserable too J.  We can share the misery, multiply the misery J.

"Whoever teaches you how to transform your own suffering into compassion", writes Rohr, "is a true spiritual authority.  Whoever teaches you to project your doubts and fears onto Jews, Muslims, your family, heretics, gays, sinners, foreigners, and the list could go on and on, or even to turn it against yourself, shame and guilt has no spiritual authority.  People who are practiced at transforming actual life pain", says Rohr, "like Jesus on the cross, are the only spiritual authority worth following.  They know.  The rest of us just talk".

So what enables us to move from transmitting pain to transforming it?

Some do it through therapy.  Some use art.  Some work it out through physical exercise.  Others in support groups.  Some through prayer.  And some in voluntary service.

Whatever you use, however you do it, you have to do it yourself.  As the old gospel hymn says, you have to walk through that lonesome valley, nobody else can do it for you.  You have to do it yourself.

And here's the thing:  that which enables you to do that, to walk through the valley of the shadow of death as the Psalmist puts it, to give you the strength to survive, to stand up to the abuse and say that you will no longer be the victim.  To persist when all odds are against you.  To never give up because there is always hope.

That source of hope, that power of life, is the source and the power of the resurrection.  It is the source and the power of transforming pain.  It is the source and the power for changing lives.  It is the source and the power for transforming our faith.  It is the source and the power for changing the world.

It is the source and the power that we have from God.  It is that source and that power that we claim as the people of God.  It is the source and the power that builds us and gives us hope.

Great is God's faithfulness.  Claim it, that source, that power, to be your own.

 


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