Jesus’ invitation in our suffering

A couple of months ago I asked you the question, “What are you struggling with the most right now?”

Quite a few of you responded, “anxiety.” Since anxiety has also been a frequent companion of mine, as well as one of the places God has most deeply met and loved me, I wrote the free email course, The Gifts of Anxiety, for you.

Many others of you shared stories of pain and struggle and grief—losing a partner or a parent to dementia or death, navigating the energy-sapping realities of chronic or life-threatening illness, waiting for a child to believe or a job to come or hope to arrive. There are so many forms of suffering!

As we continue our journey with Jesus through Lent, I can’t help but wonder how Jesus might want to be with us in our suffering. 

Lent, I think, extends to us multiple invitations. 

Ash Wednesday , with its call to “Remember that you are dust” reminds us of our humanity and frailty, as well as the gentle compassion of the One who also remembers our dustiness.

“As a father has compassion on his children,

so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him,

for he knows how we are formed,

he remembers that we are dust”

(Ps 103:13-14) 

Lent’s emphasis on fasting and repentance and prayer calls us to look with Jesus at our lives, to notice the places we have turned away, and to notice them not in order to beat ourselves up but to let Jesus help us turn back to him. We’re called to let go of habits that get in the way of our relationship and form new ones that help to bring us close, not out of obligation but out of a desire to return to our first love.

But I think Lent also extends an invitation to us in our suffering. It invites us to remember, as we walk with Jesus toward the cross, that we never suffer alone. Whether we are aware of Jesus’ presence or not, we are accompanied in our suffering by the One who himself faced suffering in so many of its forms—the agony of abandonment, betrayal, and loneliness; the weight of sin’s consequences; sleepless nights, systemic political and religious injustice, physical torture and death. Lent invites us to bring our own wounds and place our hands in Jesus’ nail-pierced ones and walk this journey together.

The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear: Jesus shared in our humanity for two reasons: 1) so he could destroy the devil and free us from our fear of death and 2) so he can help us in our own suffering. (Hebrews 2:14-18) Might honouring his sacrifice involve not only the discipline of repentance and choosing to love but also choosing to receive his love by letting him into our suffering?

Sometimes when we see someone else suffering, we hold back from sharing our own wounds. We’re tempted to think, “Their suffering is so much greater than mine. I have no right to pay attention to my own suffering. I should just be able to get over it.” 

But the invitation of this season is precisely the opposite. It is to look at Jesus and see the pain of his suffering, yes, but not to bury our own pain but to let him meet us in it. This is part of why Jesus suffered, so he could understand our pain and walk gently with us through it. And letting Jesus meet us in our suffering is a huge part of how we are enabled to turn from sin and turn back to God, since our sin so often arises from our suffering. We choose cookies or facebook or something more potent to numb the loneliness we don’t want to let ourselves feel, or we hurt people with our anger because the pain in us pushes its way out.

So as we continue walking with Jesus the long and weary road toward the cross, let’s pause for a moment. Let’s accept his invitation to sit down with him on the edge of a well or a grassy hillside—somewhere away from the crowds for a few moments of quiet conversation. If Jesus asked you, “What’s your greatest struggle, your deepest pain, right now?” how would you answer? Would you even know how to put your pain into words, or would you hope he can read your eyes, your posture, your silence, because you have no words for the pain you are feeling? Would you be afraid to speak because you’re not sure what might come out, and you’re not sure if Jesus could handle your anger, your tears, or your fears?

Know this: Jesus has walked this road of suffering as a human made of dust. He knows from the inside pain so excruciating that his capillaries burst and he sweat blood with the agony of it all. He gets it. And he extends to us his hands which still bear the scars and asks us to let him into our pain. He doesn’t want us suffering alone.

“Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers.

We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin.

So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.”

(Heb 4:14-16, The Message)

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PS. If you missed The Gifts of Anxiety course, you can still get it here.

And if you missed the chance earlier and would still like to respond to my question, “What are you struggling with the most right now?” email me at Carolyn@hearingtheheartbeat.com. I read and pray over every response.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

When life goes up in flames

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

God, sometimes there are no words.

What can one say when a mother who has made her way safely through the explosive streets of Syria weeps for her seven children lost to flames in a “safe” country, in the sleepy quietness of their own beds? When her husband can’t even weep with her as he lies in a coma? What words could possibly express the depth of the anguish, or speak the least bit of comfort into a pain like that?

Across the world we stand in stunned silence, the grief in our own gut swallowing words we might once have had.

Words, which sometimes seem so powerful, aren’t enough for a pain like this.

They aren’t enough even for the smaller flames licking around the edges of our own lives, consuming us in a slower, more hidden way: the burns of radiation on one body, of grief in another; the unexpected explosion of words or tears fuelled by hidden pain that is forcing its way to the surface, crying, “See me! Hear me! Love me!”

Everything in me aches with the longing to comfort, to help, to compensate for the terror and make the wrong right. I feel again my smallness, my lack of power against the flames.

I can find only three words: Lord, have mercy.

They seem so small. 

But as I wait in the silence, the weight of it all heavy within me, I realize all over again: 

You, God, know that words, though strong enough to speak the world into being and to call Lazarus from the grave, are not enough for the greatest of our pains.

You know that pain of the heart can’t be touched with an appeal to the head. We need to be met in that place of our pain, heart to heart, gut to gut, the pain shared rather than reasoned into submission. 

And so You come to us not first as a teacher with lessons to impart, but as a father who has compassion on his children, a mother who can’t forget the child she has borne and quiets us with her love, a midwife who, rather than explaining the principles of labor, stays close, a calming presence, and helps us find courage to keep breathing through the pain.

You come as our father, running into the flames to rescue your children.

As our mother who will one day wipe away our tears forever. And who longs for us to turn from the corner where we ache alone and weep our pain on your shoulder and begin to receive your comfort now.

For this is what the LORD says:

“. . . As a mother comforts her child,

so I will comfort you. . .” (Isaiah 66:12-13)

What to do with your wounds

It was a gorgeous Saturday morning, a few weeks back, and I was on my usual morning run. I was breathing deeply the crisp air and looking up at the brilliant red trees and missed seeing the uneven pavement stone. In less than a second, blood was dripping from both palms, my face hurt where my glasses had twisted against it, and, though I couldn’t see my knee beneath my leggings, I could tell it had felt the blow as well.

We all have wounds. It’s part of living in this creation with uneven pavement stones and dogs that bite and parents and teachers and friends who, like us, have their own wounds.

We can’t escape the wounds. But we can learn how to tend them so that even the most painful of wounds, while not chosen, can be stepping stones leading us into gift.
So how? How do we tend them so they’ll heal rather than fester? How do we care for them so a small problem doesn’t turn into a bigger one?
One thing I know: it doesn’t help to keep picking at them. And it doesn’t help to beat myself up about having them. There’s already enough of me hurting without adding more bruises.
So when the same old wound catches me off-guard and I find myself feeling like a failure, this is the question that helps me most: “I wonder how Jesus sees my wounds?” I may see them as failure, but he doesn’t. He sees them as wounds—something that I didn’t choose (though I can choose now what to do with them)—and something that I can no more heal than I could heal the weeping wounds on my hands after I fell. I can tend them—protect them, keep them clean as best I can—but I can’t make them heal. Only God can do that.
But there’s more. Not only does Jesus see my persistent triggers not as failure but as wounds, he also sees them as a place of connection.
During a recent series of challenging conversations, over and over I sensed the invitation, “Press your wounds into Mine.” The still-tender parts of my palms were a daily reminder of the invitation, and I pictured myself again and again with my palms pressed against Jesus’ palms, my eyes looking into his, into that place where I always find myself seen and known and loved. And somehow, there, the pain decreased. It turns out a lot of the pain of wounds is the loneliness beneath—the fear of failure and the rejection we’re sure will accompany it.
It’s a very intimate act, this pressing of wounds together, this mingling of blood—a bit like young girls who prick their fingers and let their blood mix in an act of declaration that they are now “blood sisters,” something deeper than friends, connected and committed forever. But Jesus is more than a playground friend. This is God who takes on flesh so he can share my blood. This is God who goes much farther than pricking his fingers to let his new-made blood mingle with mine in a symbolic act of security and belonging. No needles here, but nails piercing his wrists, a sword his side. No symbolic act but a real sealing of my security with his life.
His hands still carry the scars, an eternal invitation to press my wounds into his and there remember that nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. For, mystery of mysteries, His blood now runs in my veins and mine in his.
 

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“His blood now runs in my veins and mine in his.” For further meditation on this thought, see 2 Cor 5:21, Is 53:5, 1 Cor 10:16 and 12:27, Col 1:18-20 and 2:9-13. What feelings surface as you read that statement? What might it mean for you to know this is true?
Photos (in order) by me, Brian Patrick Tagalog on Unsplash, and Milada Vigerova on Unsplash.

The hands that keep holding

There’s a huge, turreted home that I pass on my morning runs. It sits well back from the road, peeking out from behind giant rhododendrons heavy with mauve blossom and trees squat or tall, blue-green or russet, leafy or needled. A black, wrought-iron fence surrounds it all, a boundary preserving the peace.

It’s beautiful. But for a while, when I ran past it, I could only feel the lead ball of grief in my gut.

It is a children’s hospice, and one morning when I’d passed it, I’d seen a woman sitting in her SUV with the lights on. She was still there when I ran back past. I wondered if she knew that the lights were still on, or if she would be surprised when she tried to start the car and her battery was dead. I walked to her window to ask. She thanked me. But when I said goodbye, wishing her a good day, her “thank you” seemed to hold a sadness that couldn’t be hidden even by her calm graciousness.
For days, the car was there each time I ran past. And then it wasn’t. And I could no longer run past without picking up once again the grief that I’d sensed in that mother. I was willing to share it, glad to pray for her and for them and for all the families and staff in the hospice. But some days it seemed too heavy and I wondered whether I’d have to change my route. Until a friend challenged me to change my perspective.
She’d been inside, in where they have king-sized beds so the whole family can sleep together. In where there are always fresh-baked cookies and home-made meals, a room for art and another for music and a grand staircase welcoming families in. “It doesn’t feel sad inside,” she said. It’s a place where smiles are treasured, pain is soothed, and grief is shared. It seems, in many ways, more about life than death. About finding life and hope and even joy in the same place as the devastation of death.
Here, where life and death walk together, neither laughter nor tears have to be checked at the door. Whole families come and stay for breaks before the final days arrive, continuing with play and school, and when that final time comes, they return here to a place where they already know themselves loved and cared for. In between, they can call from home in the middle of the night and find a familiar voice ready to help. And after their child dies, families continue to receive care.


Now, when I run past, I give thanks. I see in my mind a pair of great Hands cupping the whole estate, and I feel welcomed in through the open gate, into that place of knowing myself held. I feel the tenderness in those hands, the strength, the love that is stronger than death. I relax and breathe more deeply, soaking in the peace that comes from knowing that these families are being cared for, that I am too, and my own family. That no matter what comes, we will be held. I can breathe in the world’s pain, and then let it go into the hands of the One who has already lifted it and let it crush him and has come out the other side, strong and vibrant and still perfectly loving, and always ready to care—often through human hands (whether they know it or not)—for all of us in all of our pain.

The surprising secret to learning endurance


How do I keep going? At some point, all of us will probably ask this question as we face one situation or another that seems to go on and on: the challenging marriage, the noisy neighbors, the work or the pain or the child or the pager that keeps us up all night.
How do we hang in through the challenges and let them do their work in us, not breaking us, not making us bitter, but pushing us closer to Jesus and deeper into God’s love?
There’s a place for discernment: Am I being asked to stay in this situation? Is there some change I’m being invited to make, some attitude or belonging or position I’m being invited to let go of at this time?
But often the challenges come in work to which we’ve been called, a relationship to which we’ve committed, or a situation that arises unbidden and must be lived: the illness, the eviction, the normal phases of personal and family life.
How, then, do I learn endurance?
I’m surprised by words in a passage I long ago memorized. How have I not noticed them before?

“[I]f we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (2 Cor 1:6, italics mine).

I’m learning what Paul knows: Determination might be able for a while to produce gritting-my-teeth endurance, but only the comfort of being loved and accompanied can produce patient endurance, that kind of love-based endurance that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13:7).
The startling implication keeps rolling around in my head: We develop endurance not by trying harder but by learning to receive Love’s comfort.
I usually think of endurance as the opposite of comfort. I endure discomfort of one sort or another, and when comfort finally comes, I would no longer say I’m enduring; it feels more like relief or pleasure. But this is one more place where God’s thoughts are not mine, where he turns my perceptions and assumptions up-side-down. Or, rather, right-side-up. The world’s comfort is a comfort that cannot co-exist with suffering. It has to drown it, fix it, or remove it, and therefore it leaves me alone and helpless in the face of suffering, still fearing suffering and trying desperately to fix it. God’s comfort, on the other hand, comes from finding myself loved and accompanied in the suffering. The worst part of suffering is its loneliness, so the more deeply I know I am loved and accompanied, the more fear releases its hold on me.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23).

How, then, in my real daily life, do I learn to receive God’s comfort?
Often it’s a matter of just showing up. When I make the space to come, I find Jesus waiting to comfort me through a few words of Scripture, a lightening of the burden as I hold it out to him, or a simple sense of his presence.
But sometimes there are other barriers: my own fear or anger or sense of failure, or a sense of God’s absence without me knowing why.  What then helps me receive God’s comfort?

  • Reminding my heart that God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3). I’m not bothering him, not being wimpy or a failure when I come again for comfort. He wants me in his arms.
  • Being honest with myself and God about my emotions. I can’t receive comfort if I’m trying to hide. (And when it feels too hard to be honest, I can at least be honest about that and receive Jesus” gentle love in that place.)
  • Paying attention to the small things. God is creative and often sends comfort in the hug of a friend, the words of a song, or a few quiet moments with a mug of lemon-ginger tea. As I notice and savor these small gifts, writing them down and turning them over in my memory, I settle a little more deeply into trusting His love that is new every morning.
  • Asking God how he wants to meet me in this place. Sometimes the answer comes through the memory of Jesus’ own suffering and the reminder that someone who understands is walking with me. Sometimes it comes through a few words of Scripture that stand out, or a picture that shapes itself as I prayerfully ponder whether there’s a picture that portrays how I’m feeling.

Over these months as I’ve been waiting to find my new home, I’ve felt like the ground beneath my feet has been removed. (Apparently at least some of where I was finding my security wasn’t so solid!) A picture came of myself suspended in midair, with nothing beneath my feet, my arms clinging to God because he was all I had to cling to. But as I sat recently with the friend who helps me listen, she wondered aloud whether there might be further gift for me in that picture. We sat in silence together, asking Jesus if there was a gift he wanted to give, and my attention was drawn to new parts of the picture. Before, I’d noticed only my arms clinging to Him; now I could now see His strong arms around me. I’d been so focused on the empty space beneath my feet that I hadn’t noticed that I was held, nor realized that I am much safer where I am than standing alone on my own small feet. As the search for housing continues and I seek to learn patient endurance in this place, I’m returning often to this picture, listening again and again to God’s comfort, “It’s okay, little one, I’ve got you.”

 
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Photos (in order) by Emma Simpson and Echo Grid on Unsplash.