There is nothing more ordinary than suffering.
There is nothing more extraordinary than suffering.
Both of these statements are true.
For me, this has at times felt like the summer of pain, of hard stories. Perhaps it is simply because I am getting older as are the people in my orbit, and as we get older bad things start happening more regularly. Marriages begin to fall apart, mid-life crises make their obligatory appearance, kids go terrifyingly astray, words like “cancer” and “Alzheimer’s” and “Parkinson’s” start forcing their way into conversations, soul-shattering tragedy pops its head around the corner from time to time… Life takes its toll.
Perhaps it is because I am a pastor and whatever else this occupation might be, it is a magnet for pain.
Perhaps it’s because, despite my morbid fascination with writing about the problem of evil and suffering, despite the inordinate amount of time I can spend analyzing, parsing, explaining, and justifying, I often feel utterly helpless when faced with an actual living, breathing, suffering human being sitting across from me, and even a relatively few encounters with deep pain can leave me a wreck for days.
However I might map the reasons, it’s been a season like that. Or at least it’s felt like it.
A few weeks ago, a phone call came in. A fifteen-year-old boy had a brain tumour. Could I please pray?
It happens all the time, of course. Pain does not store up its arrows for the old, for those with the psychological equipment to handle it, for those who have had time to fortify their defences. Kids suffer. Horribly. All over the world. All. The. Time.
And yet. This boy has a name, a school, a set of friends, a family wondering how something like this could possibly happen, how the universe could possibly be so unjust, how God could possibly allow this. This boy is, well, this boy.
If there were ever something in our world that ought not to catch us by surprise, it would be suffering. And yet it continually catches us by surprise. We cover our mouths, we gasp and reel and stagger when we hear the news. Fifteen?! You would think we would get better at dealing with something this ordinary, but we are well and truly useless at making this normal. Maybe our stubborn reactions are nothing more than the uncomfortable emotional residue of a biologically rooted survival instinct. Or maybe they are existential tokens from across the sea. Maybe we were never meant to be at peace with pain.
Could I please pray? Yes, of course I can pray. But it’s a funny business praying in a world of ordinary suffering. It’s a funny business praying to a God who I know has always allowed indescribable and seemingly random suffering in his world and will continue to allow it. It’s a funny business, banging on this mountain of a door, scaling this impenetrable wall with my meagre little bag full of words for others. I know that none of us get to avoid this… I know that we all land on the wrong squares in the game of life from time to time… But, just this once… Do you think?… Maybe we could have a story less ordinary? Please?
Yes, of course I can pray. And I do. I pray not only for stories less ordinary, but I pray—sometimes through clenched teeth—that the God who suffered on our behalf, the God who extraordinarily entered this world of ordinary pain would accomplish his purposes in us through all of this suffering. I pray that somehow the pain could make us better, more compassionate people, that it would bring us closer to God. I pray that the suffering we experience and walk through with others would somehow take its place in the sufferings of Christ, by which all things are mysteriously made new.
The surgery went well, I recently learned. The future looks bright for this ordinary extraordinary fifteen-year-old boy. Thank God.
Yes, thank God. Who else would we thank in this ordinary extraordinary world?
Image above courtesy of Russell Berg at Seeing Berg.