Message 41, Holiday Perspectives: Through the Eyes of Suffering, 12-12-10

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


On this day after our annual holiday party and in a season when thoughts turn to giving, celebration, food, family and cherished memories of Christmases past, it is sobering to remember that nearly one billion people on this earth live with some form of malnutrition, protein deficiency or basic hunger.  1.3 billion people in our world – nearly one sixth of the total – live on less than $1.25 a day.  Over seven million children world-wide under the age of five died this past year – never to know the joys of this season.  565 thousand people in the U.S. died of cancer in 2010.  400 thousand died of AIDS.  There are over 17 million people currently unemployed in our nation.  7 million children in the U.S. live with food insecurity – they do not know where their next meal will come from.  On any given night, over 6% of all U.S. families are homeless – defined as living in cars, on the streets, in temporary shelters or in a dwelling they do not own or rent.  1.5 million Senior citizens live in round the clock nursing care facilities.  15 million American adults – over 8% of our population – suffer from clinical depression.  In the Darfur region of Sudan, over 400 thousand innocents have been killed simply because of their ethnicity.  .

I could go on and on with such statistics of misery.  It is obvious that in this season of warmth and cheer and generosity, we live in a world of pain and hurt.  Our human condition, we all know too well, is not immune from suffering.  Each of us, many in the past year, have experienced some form of suffering and each of us will, at some point in the future, know the realm of deep grief, illness or loss.  Are Christmas, Hanukah and other seasonal holidays somehow cruel jokes on us all – ways for us to symbolically “whistle past the graveyard” and make us forget the true reality of life’s pain?

We might, in seeking to understand the whys of human suffering, look no further than the mothers and fathers of our Christmas celebrations – I speak in this case of the Jewish people.  Jesus and his parents were, after all, Jews.  Christianity emerged out of Judaism as it owes the concept of monotheism and a personal god to that faith.  But as we find with one of the main characters at that first Christmas, Jesus’ step-father Joseph – a pious Jewish man, suffering is a well-known historical condition for Jews.  From the story of their slavery in Egypt four thousand years ago to countless ancient wars against them to the Spanish inquisition of the Middle Ages when many were burned at the stake for refusing to convert to Christianity to the Holocaust to recent attacks by terrorists and an Iranian regime bent on Israel’s destruction, Jews more than perhaps any other group of people, have experienced horrific forms of suffering.  Indeed, many contemporary Jews believe that the Biblical recognition of them as God’s chosen people is not a sign of favor but is, instead, a way to show the rest of the world their resilience, growth and perseverance in the face of tragedy and hatred.

As we look to the Biblical Christmas story and examine Joseph’s behavior on learning of his bride to be’s pregnancy and apparent infidelity to him, we see a man determined to rise above his fate.  We learn that upon hearing Mary was to give birth to a child, Joseph reacts with honor to such personally devastating news.  He first seeks to divorce her quietly – not wanting to subject Mary to public disgrace or to possible stoning – a punishment of the time for adulterous women.  Next, when asked by God to relent and accept the new child as a miracle, Joseph proceeds to wed Mary, to care for her during the pregnancy and then to accept Jesus as his own son.  After the birth, Joseph saves Jesus from King Herod’s murderous intentions and then raises and supports him as his own.

The Christmas story of a virgin birth is one likely created to build up the supernatural credentials of Jesus.  It is, I believe, more myth than actual history.  But, like many stories in the Bible, it comes with principles and important applications to humanity.  For us, we appreciate and sympathize with the plight of Joseph.  While Mary knew in her own heart whether or not she was indeed a virgin, Joseph had to accept that assertion on faith.  He had to experience all of the likely emotions of anger, hurt and denial on hearing of Mary’s pregnancy and likely infidelity.  And, while many others rushed to celebrate the birth of the boy-god, Joseph must have privately hurt – stung by the realization that this child was not his own.  In human terms, Joseph was the first to know and understand the private pangs of pain and depression that often come with Christmas.  Everyone else is seemingly happy and full of joy while you alone suffer in silence.  Indeed, as we heard when I read the statistics of suffering in our world, Christmas pain is neither unique nor is it likely to ever end.  Holiday pain – and suffering in general – are human realities.

For any of us, how do we make sense of suffering in our world?  How do we reconcile it with Christmas and with this time when the whole world tells us to be happy?  What does Joseph’s example – and that of all Jews – tell us about suffering?  When we suffer, should we “suck it up” as some might tell us?  Should we examine our lives for defects in us that caused us to suffer?  Are we being punished for past sins?  How do we cope with our human condition that knows hurt, disease, death, poverty, hatred, hunger, depression, loneliness and despair?

As I have discussed in previous messages, Victor Frankl wrote a book entitled The Meaning of Life in response to the horrors he experienced in Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau.  But his book is not a history of such suffering.  It is an account of how he came to find purpose and meaning in his own suffering and in that of his fellow Jews.  He did not reject his suffering as the wrath of an angry god or even the work of pure evil.  In order to survive his experiences, Frankl realized he had to find meaning in them.

As Fyodr Dostoyevsky, the famous Russian author once observed, a person must choose to make himself or herself worthy of their suffering.  Indeed, the primary motivation of our existence, according to Victor Frankl, is to find our meaning and purpose in life.  In the face of inevitable tragedies and pains, the choices we make in our attitudes, our compassion for others and in our love will, I believe, determine how happy we really are.  Indeed, suffering might lead us to better understand and then practice our true life purpose.  Frankl chose to hold onto love for his wife, kindness for fellow inmates, his Jewish faith and his hope in the future.  He refused, despite all of the degradations he faced, to give up his basic humanity – a humanity that comforted others in pain, that saw the good in each person, that cherished love, that refused to be a victim, that sought growth and learning.

In his book The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, Fyodr Dostoyevsky writes of a man who, in a dream, travels to a paradise where there is no evil, no suffering and no pain.  In this perfect world, however, the man soon realizes that with no suffering and no hate, there is no joy and no love either.  Dostoyevsky points us to the fact that absent evil, there can be no experience of good and that without suffering, there can be no compassion, no empathy, no generosity and no love.  How can such emotions be expressed if there is nobody in need of them?  The man caught in this dream comes to yearn for a return to our earth of pain where he can kiss the ground of misery and cherish it for its ability to help us experience true love – from others and for others.

It is an ultimate irony of pain and suffering that only through personal experience can we truly understand their opposites of joy and happiness.  How can we empathize with the pain of others if we do not experience it ourselves?  How can we love another if we do not know its absence?  How can we find light if we do not know darkness?  Joseph was able to honor Mary and love his adopted son Jesus because he had experienced the depths of betrayal and sadness.  For any of us this Christmas to fully experience the transcendent joy and beauty and light of this season, I believe we must first accept and embrace the pain of our own lives.

Such is the spiritual message found in suffering and, I believe, in Christmas itself.  Pain in our lives is able to bring about growth if we choose to pursue such change.  Embracing suffering does not mean that we accept it in order to be stoic martyrs.  Instead, we are asked to acknowledge its present reality – in our world and in our lives.  Growth from suffering comes then as we choose to change its future.  We work to learn from it, then change it and then hopefully not repeat it.  Instead of asking why God allows suffering in our world and in our lives, we must ask instead how we can work to reduce it.  Instead of choosing the path of victimization in our suffering, we must learn to accept that all people suffer and we should not expect to be immune from it.  We then open ourselves to the grace that comes from personal growth and to the gentle compassions others often choose to show us.   We loosen the binds that keep us stuck in the clutches of victimhood, anger and bitterness.  Christmas joy – and happiness, in general – are then the results.

Too often in life I have chosen to flee from suffering.  I am conflict averse and I will choose retreat instead of reasoned and appropriate confrontation.  I seek pain avoidance and thus, too often, a path of diminished challenge and less growth opportunity.  I am coming to understand that if I confront the pain or hatred or despair I might experience, I will learn more about myself and others.  I will find strengths that I lack or that I did not know I had.  I will find reasons to move into unknown realms where I can find new insights and new truths.

I believe that for most of us, we can find better empathy for those who hurt and struggle if we ourselves do not flee from embracing our own hurts.  Indeed, a root meaning of the word compassion is “to suffer with…”  In this sense, as each of embrace our own pain or hurt, we can care more for the sick, the lonely, the dying and the unloved.   I have known no great and profound tragedy in my life but I have felt stings of rejection, of bullying, of prejudice and of false shame.  My personal experiences of past hurt allow me to understand the pain of others.  I am therefore better able to extend myself to a world in pain.

The Jewish people have often found solace in words from the Torah – or our Old Testament – when God says to them, I have given you as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” It is a wonder to many historians, and a point of anger to their enemies, that Jews have persevered throughout history despite their many hardships.  After the slaughter of 6 million of their brothers and sisters, Jews chose to claim their own nation, to challenge prevailing forces of hatred and to grow from the depths of their own horrors.  Indeed, in a very perverse way, Hitler did a favor to Jews around the world.  The pain he inflicted on their race made them stronger.  The deaths he perpetrated caused them to seek inner strengths and inner resolves few of us can understand.  And such is the point of the Bible verse in which Jews find themselves as lights to others – lights of growth, of strength, of perseverance and of a refusal to wallow in their victimhood.  Like many of us, some of them may have forgotten the lessons of their own suffering and they no longer find empathy for the lives of Palestinians who also suffer and die.  But the lesson of suffering and of empathy is no less true even if some Jews have forgotten it.  The same holds true for us.  We must never forget our own life pains precisely because they allow us to better empathize with fellow humans and creatures.

I cannot begin to diminish the pain many of you may have experienced in your lives.  I do not wish to offer simple platitudes to explain away such hurt.  But with our acknowledgement that pain and suffering and death in this life exist for all of us – in some form – what choices do we make in the face of that reality?  Do we retreat and flee?  Or, do we find our suffering to be transformative?  I believe there are lessons to be learned about life and love in the suffering we experience.  To use crude terminology – and forgive me for saying this – there is gold in the crap of life.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, writing in his classic The Gulag Archipelago, reached an epiphany – a profound moment of growth that emerged out of his Siberian exile and suffering.  He had found during his time in prison an ability to survive, to love his fellow man and to hate injustice all the more.  He writes, “So, bless you, prison, for having been in my life.” Is it possible this holiday season, this Christmas, for each of us to accept the realities of our loneliness or infirmities, our aging, our poverty, our enemies, our failures, our rejections, our losses or our hardships?  Can we truly embrace generosity and kindness, peace and gentleness because we ourselves may have sometimes been denied them?  Can we forgive our enemies and those who have hurt us as we discern the hurts in them?  Can we then say to ourselves and to others, “Merry Christmas and thank God for the pain in my life?”

In this Christian time of advent – before the upcoming birthday of Jesus – we place many hopes in the spirit of goodwill that seems to permeate this season.  We bask in the glory of friendships and family.  We look to the Prince of Peace – our understanding of who Jesus is described to be – as the reason for this season.  The Biblical story of his birth tells us that he came to redeem evil on earth by calling us all to act like our better angels.  But the ultimate message of the Jesus story is, I believe, that he did not live and die in order to create maximum pleasure on earth.  Instead, I believe Jesus was about creating maximum change on earth.  And that change must begin in the human heart – in our own hearts and souls.  Jesus could not alter the fact that lepers existed, that women were treated harshly, that outcasts were shunned, that people suffered and that people hated and were cruel.  What he could alter, through his teachings, was our response to such tragedies.  The light of Jesus, the man whose birth we celebrate this Christmas, is that despite great despair, hope is real.  Despite profound pain, joy is not an illusion but a reality we can choose to discover.  Out of the suffering we experience in our lives and in our world, let us find this Christmas – truth…….and peace……… and love – for ourselves and for those around us.