Mid Week Faith Lift
April 8, 2020
Necessary Suffering- The Real Deal
Rev. Deb Hill-Davis
O God, if I worship you in fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship you in hope of paradise, shut me out from paradise. But if I worship you for your own sake, do not withhold from me your everlasting beauty. —Rábi‘a (717–801), Islamic mystic and poet.
What does it take to worship God for God’s own sake? What does it take to be in awe of the beauty, the love and the wonder of the Universe of which we are a very small part? How do I get my own agenda out of the way? Friends, as I wrestled this week with this talk, I admit that I really struggled with these questions. To be brutally honest, I wrote a talk on Tuesday and then had to just throw it away because I was just phoning it in, so to speak. I really had to struggle with the reality that I just didn’t want to do it. Period. At all.
I wanted to just be done, bury my head in the covers and not come out until this ugliness was all over, done. I honestly wanted to just clean my closets, work in the yard and be bored, anything but write this talk. And truthfully, I have never, ever, felt that way before, until now.
When I first sat down to contemplate a Palm Sunday talk and listened in meditation for the theme, the title, all that kept coming to me was “Necessary Suffering.” Really, God? Are you sure? That sounds so depressing! It is not very uplifting or inspiring and I really need to be inspired right now, more than ever! NO, “NECESSARY SUFFERING” THAT IS YOUR TITLE!!
It was a bit like finding out several years ago at the age of 65 that I had to have a wisdom tooth pulled because of decay at the base of the tooth by the gum line. Really? I have had this tooth for 45 years; I want a second opinion! Because who in their right mind wants a wisdom tooth pulled at 65?? No, you really have to have that tooth out and it will be easy and you will be very happy to have it out said the dentist. Neither of which were true: it wasn’t easy and I did not feel at all happy to have it out. It hurt, it was an ordeal and it was necessary suffering. UGH!
So, ok, God, I will do it, I will do the talk about necessary suffering. When I read over the first version of this talk, it was clearly a “fear of hell, hope of paradise” version. Not in the literal sense, but in the sense that it was a head trip, not a heart journey. And part of the reason is that my heart is truly aching right now, but I didn’t want to feel it. My heart is aching for all the people dying alone, for all the medical people who are so scared and overwhelmed and unable to do what they believe is their mission: healing people.
I have been with them in the hospital as a chaplain when I was in Seminary, and I know firsthand how dedicated they are and how much it hurts to lose a patient, one patient. And now there are more critically ill patients than they can possibly manage. Necessary losses, because we as a nation, as a world, were not prepared for this pandemic. And I did not want to feel that, not at all, the pain caused by our lack of planning and failure to believe that this could happen.
I wanted to jump past the suffering of it all, the isolation and inability to be with and comfort those I care about and to also be comforted. I did not want to embrace the necessary suffering that would cause me to actually live this talk and let it work on me to break me open, to be transformative, to humble me.
I just wanted to be mad at our leaders who were so ill-equipped to handle this. If I can just stay mad and rant and rave on Facebook, then maybe I can avoid the necessary suffering. How can our country, the USA, of which I have felt so proud, now be #1 in the world in the number of Covid-19 cases? How can this be?? It is so humiliating! What don’t you want to feel, Deb? WAIT A MINUTE, DEB, HOLD UP! If you can’t feel it, how can you speak about it, speak it with integrity and from your heart? Well, actually it is very humbling, Deb.
And then, as so often happens in Scripture, when the Prophets are at the end of their rope, there was an angel in the form of Governor Cuomo who this week spoke to members of the National Guard who were about to be deployed to help on the front lines of the Covid-19 fight in New York. He told them how much he admired their work, that he had worked with the Guard before and really appreciated their work in building the field hospitals in Central Park.
Then he acknowledged that their mission now, in New York was going to be long, hard and painful. But he wouldn’t ask them to go anywhere he would not go and he would be with them all the way. And he had full confidence in their ability to stay the course no matter how difficult it was. I cried as I watched this man’s courage and humility in the face of great tragedy. It was a powerful example of leaning into necessary suffering. Thank you, Gov. Cuomo for your presence.
To be brutally honest, I am completely humbled by his example of leadership. I personally vacillate between feeling guilty that I am not doing enough to help others who are suffering so much to complaining and feeling sad over my own losses of travel, of retreats, of conferences and time with friends. And then I think of young people who are graduating who will not have that experience with their friends and family. I think of people not able to be with loved ones who are dying of the virus, not able to say good-bye or gather for a proper funeral and memorial. It is a time of great suffering, of necessary suffering for our nation and for our world. And as hard as it is, we have to mourn it all, together, to grieve it together. It is a part of our shared, collective necessary suffering. It is the only path to transformation.
During Holy Week, this is the right theme, that of necessary suffering. It is comforting to read the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemene who prayed, “Father, please take this cup from me…..” That has been my prayer too, but that was not to be. Jesus, our Way Shower, although he wanted to not go through the crucifixion experience, knew that it was inevitable. He was too threatening to the Roman power structure and his followers were not strong enough to make a stand for the new consciousness he was bringing into being in the world. In fact, they really didn’t get it, what he was offering them as transformative healing in this new consciousness.
Richard Rohr, one of my favorites said it this way in his Tuesday, March 31 message:
When we are willing to be transformed, we stop wasting time theorizing, projecting, denying, or avoiding our own ego resistance. The true spiritual teacher is not afraid to give us a dose of humiliation. If we immediately balk at some minor blow to our ego, the teacher knows that no basic transformation into our True Self has taken place yet. It takes a masterful teacher or mentor to teach us that we are not important. Otherwise, reality itself teaches us: painful life situations have to dismantle us brick by brick, decade by decade.
Jesus knew that he needed to destabilize a person’s false, separate self before they could understand that they had a True Self, but destabilizing our security systems and our ego is always a hard sell. He says, “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and lose their soul?” (Luke 9:25).
What Jesus was about to teach us during the last week of his human life on earth that began with the triumphal procession of “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday through the apparent tragedy of his crucifixion on Good Friday is that necessary suffering is part of our human/divine journey. Necessary suffering is unavoidable as we are now all learning together. When we resist that suffering, we are arguing with what is, arguing with God. When we resist the necessary suffering, it is like trying to teach a cat to bark. We may coach, cajole, play tapes of barking, offer treats as incentives, and in the end, the cat still says “Meow.” And we are still suffering because life is not the way we think it should be. It just is.
The only way out of this is through it. We do what we can, and lean into the suffering. We cannot do all the good that the world needs right now, but the world needs all the good that we can do. We lean into awareness and acceptance as the path to freedom from suffering. Necessary suffering holds the power of transformation for us, the power of creative energy, the joy of expanded consciousness and unbelievable emotional, mental and spiritual growth. Our task is to accept this as reality, aware of all our feelings and needs, and to walk that path of freedom knowing that God is present in all of it, all of it, no exception. Necessary suffering is the path of transformation and the only path to full realization of the beauty and love of God. Hosanna!
Blessings and love,