I daresay that not a single one of us is completely satisfied with our lives. I mean, satisfied in the sense that we wouldn’t take the opportunity to change something about ourselves if we could. Some of us would, no doubt, want more hair, or fewer accumulated pounds, or we’d rather be taller, or shorter, or wish that our shape was somehow different.
Or we find ourselves wishing that we were happier—maybe we have bouts of depression or unhappiness every once in a while. Some of us find ourselves thinking thoughts that are not consistent with our behaviors and inclinations from time to time.
We typically experience and think of these desires as deficiencies—something is wrong with us. As a whole, however, seeing ourselves as deficient, because we are human, and vulnerable, sometimes seems strange and sad.
Given this way of seeing ourselves, we are not very prepared to see someone who has an obvious serious disability. It’s more typical for us to feel uneasy, to pretend not to notice, to avert our eyes, to ignore or avoid people who may have and may live with a variety of problems and disabilities. The one that plagues me a lot is the Smile Train—picture of children with cleft palates.
Such is the case of the Canaanite woman in our gospel lesson from Mark. This woman had a daughter who was tormented by a “demon”—we don’t know what kind of problem was really there—but we can presume that it may have been a mental problem or some personality maladjustment.
In any case, this girl is troubled and her mother hounds and begs Jesus’ disciples to let her talk to the great healer. And just like we might do, the disciples try to get her to go away. After all, she’s not even a Jew—“send her away, she keeps shouting after us.”
The mother is insistent and eventually she gets Jesus’ attention. Jesus even tries to send her away—“I’m not her to take care of you, but to save the Jews.” But this woman is a real mom—she is determined to solve the illness of her daughter and, finally, Jesus, having compassion, realizes the nature of the mother’s faith and finally heals the girl.
Everything is ok. The mother works out the daughter’s healing with Jesus. God is praised. Life goes on.
But most of us know, either in our own lives or in the lives of those whom we love and care for and care about—that this kind of a miracle story isn’t much like our stories.
At some point in our lives there is an intrusion of suffering--a mentally ill child, a handicap that has life-long consequences, a personality dysfunction, or maybe an addiction to alcohol, or drugs, or any one of the myriad of other addictions. We find ourselves asking hard questions of our faith and hard questions of God—“where were you when I needed you?”
Suffering also makes us ask hard questions—what have we done to deserve this?
I read years ago about the death of William Sloan Coffin’s son because of an auto accident. Coffin preached at his own son’s memorial and discussed his reaction to this terrible experience, saying that frequently people would attempt to comfort his with that familiar Christian cliché: “It must have been God’s will.” Coffin thundered, “The hell it is. When my boy was killed, God was the first who cried.”
If God is indifferent to suffering—if God doesn’t care—who cares about God?
If God is sympathetic but impotent in the face of our difficulties, then of what value is the idea of God at all? Sympathy, as we all know, can be cheap and abundant.
Or if God is a source or cause of suffering, or—God forbid!—the suffering is an expression of God’s will, than I would assume that God is malevolent, vengeful, even perverse---maybe even immoral!
But God is none of these things. And that’s why we seek God—so as to not suffer along. That’s why we invoke God and that’s why we’re constantly looking for companionship in suffering—sometimes to share, but sometimes to blame, or at times to do both.
We’re taught from a young age that suffering is part of life. If we suffer, we’re apt to learn this kind of teaching says. We’ve even been taught that suffering is God’s way of getting our attention—and we’re told that we will be better for that suffering.
Somerset Maugham said, “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character: happiness does that, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”
So, here goes a little theological teaching for all of us.
Suffering for the Christian has something to do with Jesus—most of us know that. Jesus was the one person, in all of human history, in whom suffering was not only manifested, but redeemed and transcended. This fact, which is central to the whole enterprise of the Christian faith—and which is vivid to us by the symbol of the cross—unfortunately has been long undermined by the wimpy gospel of Christian success—so wimpy, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to recover the correct understanding of suffering within the context of our religious lives.
If you and I are to understand the meaning of suffering, it is because we have come to understand it in the context of Jesus. Suffering, of which death is the ultimate expression, means that the cross must always be before us—but the cross is not an end in itself. Death was as real to Jesus as it will be to us. Jesus was not rescued just in the nick of time by God.
But what we need to understand is that in the cross, Jesus lived through his suffering and came out on the other side. It’s not for nothing that we sing a verse in the hymn, Abide With Me: hold thou they Cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flow; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
The Cross represents suffering which is not set aside from life, but suffering that springs from life, and is found and is a part of, life itself. This is the most orthodox belief in Christianity—Jesus does not save us from suffering, but is with us in and through suffering.
It can be hard for us to remember that truth when the cross becomes an empty object of brass.
The most real thing in the entire world is right there—above this altar—that simple, plain and unadorned cross.
And where is it, then, that we look for hope? Not for optimism, but for hope?
For the Christian, it means first to seek hope in the places of suffering and stress. It means that if we want to look for the places where God is most likely to be found in our time, we need to look to the places where suffering is the greatest.
And the reality of that is that God is most present in those places where life seems most hopeless! Where can God be found today? Where the suffering is the greatest! That means that we look to those who are excluded in this life, and placed on the margins, to those who by the standards of the world are not successful or healthy—those who, in Jesus’ words, “suffer and are persecuted.”
Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
As we grow more and more able in life to quiet our fears, as we are able to come into the presence of our own and others suffering and see suffering for what it is—real human living; as we are able to recognize in our world those places where hope is alive and people are alive; we can then begin to understand a basic element of Christian truth.The truth that in a world of tribulation, and most of all with those who suffer, we are promised, by Jesus, a great and an eternal hope. The empty cross is our constant reminder of this eternal hope.