suffering, sweat, names, & limps

God be with you.

A big part of how I understand my role as a minister and preacher is to cultivate courageous curiosity and faith-filled imaginations; it's to make people hungry and thirsty for something they didn’t know existed, and to invite people to tap into the Mystery Underneath it All.

One of the ways I’ve tried to do that here,
something which seemed like a good idea at the time,
was to offer people “free sermons,”
this “prize” where people could basically tell me what to preach on;
I thought it’d be a fun way to meet you where you’re at,
and see what it is you’re rumbling with,
or maybe just give you guys the chance to trip me up by asking for a sermon on squeegees.
And so when Scott cashed in his prize from last years Ugly Christmas Sweater contest and texted me his sermon topic
I was excited and didn’t really know what to expect.

Here’s what he asked:

Why do some people suffer more than others?

Exactly: Woah.

Woah,
that’s beautiful
heavy
and
heart wrenching.

Woah,
that’s my question too.
We’ve all struggled with that one.

Thanks for that question.
It’s a fantastic question.
Its a piñata of a question.
No matter what angle you come at it, there’s always something to take a swing at.

//

And as I circled your question, I began to hear 3 different with three different questions within it.

I heard:

1) Why does God let some people suffer more than others?

Whose asked that one before?
It’s as honest and raw question as you’d get.
But the thing with that question is the kind of God it assumes,
this Puppeteer Chess Master kind of God,
this God whose up there somewhere overseeing and manipulating it all.

And the thing about that kind of God is it fosters a very particular explanation of suffering:

“Oh, God must be testing me.”
or
“Oh, God doesn’t ever give me more than I can handle.”

Anyone ever hear these kinds of statements?

The healthiest spiritual response to that kind of God and those kinds of statements is atheism.

A God who sends us into harms way and throws us into the deep end just to see how we’ll do is not the God Jesus opens us up to,
that’s not a God of Love.

So while it’s a honest and raw question,
it’s really the wrong question.

The God I know I’ve experienced and have encountered
and the Spirit and Energy I hear you guys talk about is a different kind of God than that.
God isn’t up there directing and over-seeing,
but down here supporting and sustaining.
It’s in the blackest of nights that God is most present.

So that question,
while we all really want to whack at it,
doesn’t really work once you have some perspective on it.

Which leads us to the second question:

2) What kind good world would allow suffering?

Well, this one.

When our scriptures talk about the ‘goodness’ of this world,
it has less to do with the lack of suffering,
and more to do with creation’s creational intent and its capacity for beauty, peace, and justice.
Suffering and pain is simply a natural part of our reality.
It’s biological: We are complex beings full of stardust, flesh and blood, we will suffer and be in pain.
It’s social: being in relationship and community means trusting and being vulnerable and that will hurt.
Pain and suffering is simply a reality that we, as social and living creatures, need to face.

So while we can, should, and will talk about how respond to the social injustices and preventable sufferings of our world, part of the task is to surrender to the idea that suffering, unfortunately, is simply a part of life.

Which then gets at the third question.
And this is the question I think Scott, ad so many of us, are actually asking. 

3) What do we do with our suffering?

Ah!
Now that’s a question we can rumble with.
What’s it’s purpose?
How do we hold and view our it?
How does it work?

I think it’s a question a lot of us here ask,
and are thankful for your courage, Scott, to bring it up.

//

So today, my friends,
as we explore Scott’s question,
we’re going to talk about:

wrestling.
sweat.
jimmy murphy
entering to exit.
and we’ll end up taking about names and limps

It’s going to be fun.

Are you with me?

I hope you don’t suffer to much. Ha!

But first … let’s pray.

//

There’s this story in the Bible.
You heard it earlier.
This story found within the Hebrew scriptures about a guy named Jacob,
who, while out in the wilderness, has the weird wrestling match with a stranger,
as one does,
and after it’s finished he limps away with a new name: Israel.

But to really hear this story we need to know how it started.
So, let’s try something.
Just because its kind of fun.
Let’s pretend we’re all therapists.
Let’s pretend the man formerly known as Jacob comes into our office for an appointment,
and he tells us about this limp he has that won’t go away,
and how he’s seen medical doctors but they are mystified by it,
so finally one of them suggests he talks to us,
and so we get him to lay down on that weird couch and we do what therapists do –
we ask him about his story.

And he tells us …

He tells us about his family,
about how he had an older brother name Esau who his dad, Isaac, loved more than him,
but that’s okay because his mom loved him more than Esau;
and he tells us how when Isaac was dying,
Isaac wanted to give his blessing to Esau,
this important rite of passage in that day and age,
basically this way of passing on to the eldest son the promises and hope of the family name.
But Jacob,
wanting it for himself,
and enabled by his mother,
dressed up as his brother,
and conned his dying, blind, old dad into giving it to him instead of his brother.
And when Esau found out,
he, of course, was furious and wanted revenge,
which sent Jacob off into the mountains fleeing for his life.

Basically, a template for healthy family dynamics.

And so as we sit on our little therapist chair with our little note book and pen,
we feel our heart begins to soften towards him,
we start to have compassion towards him,
because … we know his story.
His story is our story.
We know that pain and woundedness, don’t we?
We know what it’s like to experience pain, don’t we?

And we don’t just mean physical pain,
we’re talking about existential pain:
the pain from when pieces of us get left being behind in broken relationships, failed ventures, and sharp words;
the ache from all doors left open in the corridors of our lives, those resentments, grudges, and bitterness we carry that causes us to be more concerned with what was than with what is or what could be.
We’re talking about the suffering from longing for closure and wholeness.

Anyone know what we’re talking about?

But just as we’re about to jump up to give Jacob a hug and have a good cry together
we remember what we’re taught about projection and transference,
so we scribble down something and we ask about the limp.

And he tells us …

He tells us about how decades later,
decades of just living with his pain, woundedness, and suffering,
he heard that his brother, Esau, was looking for him with an army of 400 people.
As one does.
And so,
freaking out about it,
he goes off into the wilderness and we’re told how it’s there,
as he waits for the encounter he’s avoided, ignored, and tried to forget,
he has this wrestling match with a stranger.

And he tells us how after a long night of wrestling,
a night of jumping off the top ropes,
a night of DDTs, Sharp Shooters, and Tombstones,
this stranger blesses him and Jacob walks away with a new name and a limp.

And so Israel looks at us from our couch and he asks:

“So why am I limping?”

And what do we tell him?
What’s our answer to his question?

We tell him:

“You limp because you chose life.”

//

Last summer Dawn got me month membership at hot yoga studio.
She thought it’d be a good idea since if you bent me in any way shape or form, Id probably break.
So we go into the class, and its so dark and hot and people are sighing loudly as they law down on their mats. 
But as the class begins I eventually get into it.
I find my breath and can feel my body begin to realign.
But then the teacher says we’re going to shift into a new position:
the lotus position.
People seem to know what that means,
but I have no idea.
I don’t want to look around cause I know that’s against the rules,
so I do what I found works in yoga when you have no idea what to do:
just flounder around awkwardly til help comes.
So the teacher comes by and helps me move body parts I didn’t know existed,
and Im struggling and about to give up and she says:

“Keep working. It doesn’t work if you don’t sweat”

//

Life is kind of like that, isn’t it?

Life means sweat.
You can’t get the sweat out of life no matter how hard we try.

We fantasize about it
we obsess over it,
we long for a life where it’s all easy and effortless,
but there’s really ancient word for a life without sweat:
death.

But as much as we may long for a life without sweat,
when it comes down to it,
I don’t think any of us really want that easy and effortless life.

My friend the rabbi talks about how there was this guy named Jimmy Murphy
who died and went to Whatever-Is-Next and the man who greeted him by saying:
“Welcome! So glad you here. Our goal is to make you live happily ever. What can I get you?”
So Jimmy thinks and says: “I was never a good athlete. I want to be a sports star.”
And so it was.
Jimmy started to win every sporting event and found fame and celebrity.
And he kept it up, always asking for whatever he wanted,
settling into a very easy, very comfortable, and very effortless life.
But after years and years of this, Jimmy went back to that man who greeted him at the gates and complains:
“Im feeling so depressed and life just doesn’t seem very fulfilling anymore. 
I thought Heaven was supposed to be wonderful.”
And the man looked at him and said:
“What makes you think this is Heaven?”

Sometimes what we think would be heaven would actually be hell.
Sometimes what we think is life, isn’t actually life at all.

When we talk about life within the Jesus tradition,
we don’t talk about a life that’s free of suffering and struggle,
but rather a life that’s full of depth and joy.
It understands that life isn’t a trail to be endured
but
an adventure,
a journey,
and a process towards integrity, wholeness and closure,
towards being at peace with who you are and what your story is.

And it’s a life that demands sweat.
It takes work.
It takes effort.
Once we stop trying to sweat, we stop living as we’re invited and intended to live.

So perhaps this helps us understand what we’re to do with the suffering in our lives:
we sweat it out.

And one way we do that is by doing something really counter intuitive,
we enter into it.

//

My friend the rabbi use to tell this other story about how there once was this old farmer who, when asked directions to the next town over the hill, would say “Oh, you can’t get there from here.”

The wholeness we look for.
The closure we long for.
The kind of life we’re looking for.
This life that is full, big and robust,
this life where we feel more at peace than more at odds,
more whole than in pieces,
this life of closure and wholeness,

sometimes,
most of the time,
all of the time,

the way there isn’t found by going forward,
it’s found by going backwards.
The way there isn’t found by going out,
it’s found by going in.

When it comes to the question of what to do with our suffering,
the answer is entering back into it.

It’s by entering into the depths of our interiors,
into our flesh and blood,
into the wounds,
into the pain,
into the darkness and chaos,
and into the basements of our lives,
it’s then and only then
that we can exit into something new.
It’s then and only then that we can find the life we’re looking for.

In to go out.
Back to go forward.

That’s the great paradox of suffering.

//

So back to your question:
why do some people suffer more than others?

Because they choose to live more than others.

The people who suffer more tend to be the people who chose to live more.
They tend to be the people who,
despite the sweat,
despite the awkwardness, pain, and tension,
despite the years and costs of therapy,
choose to enter into their wounds,
their tragedies,
their fears,
and failures,
and do the hard work of closing those doors and putting themselves back together.

They tend to be the people who love themselves enough to enter into it all in order to exit into new life.

And they – and we – can do this because the thing that makes this possible,
the grace that makes us able to do it,
is that we know God isn’t up there somewhere,
but God is down here,
with us and for us,
supporting and sustaining right in the midst of our struggle,
giving us the grace, light and love we need to get through to the other side.

So,
my friends,
may you enter into your sufferings and struggles,
and may you walk away with a limp,
a sign of your struggle but a sign that you. are. still. here,
still moving forward,
still alive,
and more whole and more at peace than ever before.

May you struggle well.
Grace and peace to you.