a question


    What’s the point of pain?

    That’s the question that ran through my mind last night as I drove home from work. When I wrote about remembering a few posts back, one of the lines from the clip of Jerry Orbach singing, “Try to Remember” was

    deep in december it’s nice to remember
    without a hurt the heart is hollow.

    Why is that nice to remember? What if we remembered when we were whole, not hollow, before we ever started hurting? Right now I have folks I care about who are in deep pain: one’s father is dying at a time when the family is fractured; one’s young child is dying because there seems to be no other option; Ginger’s father’s mind is being slowly erased by Alzheimer’s. The pain appears to be eating them up, rather than making them whole.

    What’s the point of their pain?

    After mentioning them, I must say the cause of my question is something less earth-shattering and still difficult. When it comes to relationships, I can more quickly move to talk about the meaning of suffering, or at least making meaning of suffering. In living with my depression, I’ve learned a great deal about how pain informs hope and strengthens it. I have heard the words of those who know about suffering much more than I and who have passed down songs which give melody to the meaning they know in their lives. We just got the latest Mavis Staples record and when she sings

    we shall not, we shall not be moved
    we shall not, we shall not be moved
    like a reed planted by the water
    we shall not be moved.

    The second time I heard the song, I began to wonder when a reed became so immovable. Like a boulder, or a mountain, maybe, but a reed? The melodic truth is there is an uncomfortable vulnerability to being human.

    Now that I’m treading in such deep theological and philosophical waters, the reason for my question is almost hard to articulate: our house in Massachusetts has still not sold. We have never been in a financial situation to be interstate landowners, so things are getting pretty serious. Sometimes it feels as though our options lie between desperate and humiliating. I think the reason the whole thing raised my question is I don’t see some grand theological swirl to what we’re living through. The whole struggle feels pointless. And Mavis is still singing:

    got my hand on the freedom plow
    wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now
    keep your eyes on the prize – hold on.

    When I hear those words, I feel humbled long before I feel hopeful. She knows pain far deeper than anything in my life and she’s still singing about standing strong and holding on , while I would take most anything for this part of the journey.

    One of the book reviews at Journeys with Jesus is of Stanley Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew in the new Brazos Commentary series. In the review, I found this quote from the book:

    The problem, after all, is not belief in the resurrection, but whether we live lives that would make sense if in fact Jesus has not been raised from the dead.

    Even though their words make clear the difference between a gospel singer and a religion professor, they both articulate something that feels a bit out of reach to me right now, as do Paul’s words from Romans 8:28:

    And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (RSV)

    Life, for me and even more so for many more around me, feels more like the verses Paul quotes a little farther down in the same chapter:

    For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

    If Mavis and Stanley are right, I need to hold on to Paul’s finishing words:

    For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    Lent is a little over a week away; my journey appears to be already beginning.


    P. S. — Here’s Mavis.


    1. Hey, I am preaching Sunday from the Lectionary reading of the Transfiguration…maybe the Brothers Zeb and Peter, cling to that moment during the pain of Christ’s death? Is that part of our journey too? Cling to the moments when the journey is miraculous so we can stay on the path when the road gets treacherous?
      Love ya, JB

    2. Hi, Milton–

      Sorry things are tough for you right now; you’re in my prayers, brother. You’ve helped me out on my darker days, and I’d like to offer you something. Do you know Kahlil Gibran’s answer to your question? Goes something like this:

      And a woman spoke, saying, tell us of Pain.
      And he said:
      Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encompasses your present understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may reach toward the sun, so must you know pain. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;and you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

      A warm hug for you as the wind swirls around you–take care!


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