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"Going from Suffering to Hope" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on June 16, 2019 by Kathy Miller

“Going from Suffering to Hope”

Romans 5:1-5

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday


I recently watched a Ted Talk given by Nora McInerny.  In the span of three months in 2014 she miscarried a baby, then her father died and then her husband died.  Since that time, she started a group called the Hot Young Widows Club and speaks around the country about grief.   In her talk, she recalls how people were often so uncomfortable around her.  They didn’t know what to do or say.  She says it was like they were worried her grief might rub off on them.  But when she got remarried it was like everyone she knew breathed a collective sigh of relief, as though now she had somehow gotten her “happy ending” and they could stop worrying about her because she had finally “moved on.”  But she says that for herself and so many other people grieving, the phrase “moved on” is just the worst.  She says, “I hate that phrase so much... Because what it says is that my husband, Aaron’s, life and death and love are just moments that I can leave behind me -- and that I probably should. And when I talk about him, I slip so easily into the present tense, and I've always thought that made me weird. And then I noticed that everybody does it. And it's not because we are in denial or because we're forgetful, it's because the people we love, who we've lost, are still so present for us. So, when I say, "Oh, Aaron is ..." It's because Aaron still is. And it's not in the way that he was before, which was much better, …. It's just that he's indelible, and so he is present for me. He's present for me in the work that I do, in the child that we had together, in these three other children I'm raising, who never met him, who share none of his DNA, but who are only in my life because I had Aaron and because I lost Aaron. He's present in my marriage to my current husband, because Aaron’s life and love and death made me the person that he wanted to marry. So, I've not moved on from Aaron, I've moved forward with him.”

It may be a subtle difference, but it is an important one.  We don’t move on from our sufferings and struggles, we hope to eventually move forward with them.  I’ve often spoken with people who have gone through something really difficult but as they begin to move forward with their life, other people say things like, “you’re so strong” or “I don’t know how you do it.”  And the people who are trying to move forward ask, “what other choice do I have?  Do people mean to suggest that if what happened to me, happened to them, they would commit suicide?  Would they never leave their bed?  Do they know somedays I don’t leave my bed?  Do they know I don’t feel strong?  Most days I feel like I’m barely hanging on.”   


In fact, it is common for people experiencing suffering or grief to sometimes, even if fleetingly, wish they didn’t have to go on and sometimes they even wish for death as a relief from the pain or in the hope that death would reunite them with the one they miss so dearly. And there are those who, tragically, in their great suffering and pain, do take their own lives. But when someone takes their life, we understand it as something which compounds the tragedy – something we always hope to prevent.  Which means, for all those who keep on living, ultimately there is little choice but to put one foot in front of the other, to get out of bed most days, to go to the grocery store, to meet a friend for coffee, to do regular life things, even while their hearts are broken and doing the incredibly difficult work of mending. 


And when I talk about a mending heart, I don’t mean the kind of mending that someone like Mary Risler or Mary Manning would do to a quilt where it would be neat and whatever tear had been would be hardly visible.  Heart mending I imagine more like a 3-year olds art project – with pieces of tape and glue and stitches at odd angles and some stitches still awfully lose and easily opened again. This mending is slow and laborious and painful.  It is often two steps forward and three steps back.  It can sap every ounce of energy from a person.


And then here comes Paul in today’s reading talking about how we should be boasting in our suffering?  It seems like he’s mistaken or someone’s mistranslated. Who would feel like boasting in suffering, even if they had the energy?  But Paul does not offer these words as someone unscathed by life’s grief and suffering.  He is an insider to a life marked with pain, trials and tribulations.  And still, Paul says we can boast in our suffering because suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope.  It’s tempting to hear this as a chain of events that is some kind of prescription – a formula to suffering we are meant to follow.  But it’s not.  Paul is describing what God’s love does when we suffer. 


Paul is reminding us that in our suffering, God’s love continues to pour into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  Suffering itself does not create endurance, character and hope.  God’s love comes into our suffering and gives us the strength to endure, to wisdom to grow in character and the ability to find hope for the future.   


God’s love begins mending our hearts with endurance. In suffering or grief, it takes endurance just to wake up each day, when we wish we could just stay asleep.  Endurance in suffering is like the endurance needed for a marathon race, but just to get through a regular day.  It is putting one foot in front of the other to leave our bedroom. Endurance is God’s love getting us from one moment to the next and then an hour at a time and eventually a day or a week.


And when we string enough days of enduring together, God’s love begins to help us grow in character.  Character looks like someone who is suffering but doesn’t take out their suffering on others.  Character is what helps us hold onto the good of who we are, instead of letting our suffering turn us bitter or angry or apathetic.  Which is not to say that we don’t ever feel bitter or angry or apathetic, but character in God’s love is the difference between feeling angry and becoming an angry person.  Character comes from God’s love revealing to us the ways in which others suffer too, so through our suffering we gain more empathy for others and stops us from always trying to measure our suffering against others.  Character is God’s love giving us wisdom so our suffering can increase our ability for love and empathy, rather than cause us to close in on ourselves. 


And then, not all at once, not right away, but over time, endurance and character give us the ability to have hope again, to look with hope to the future. We are not promised an easy life through our faith, a life without suffering and pain.  God doesn’t cause our pain and suffering to teach us lessons.  But, God can bring good out of even the deepest places of hurt in our lives.   To do this, God doesn’t try to move us on, to make us forget our suffering and pain, even when we sometimes long for that, but rather God moves us forward in love.  And, as we move forward, we find, sometimes in small increments at a time, hope in the future.  God’s love can restore our hope.


And that’s what Paul means when he talks about boasting because people who have hope will also be people who boast about God’s love and goodness.  The translation of the word “boast” might be better translated as “rejoice.”  Because it isn’t that we feel pride in suffering, but that even when we suffer, we know God’s love will remain with us, and we trust and believe God’s love will give us endurance and character and eventually hope. 


There are plenty of examples of this.  You know people who have come through suffering to hope.  Many of you have walked that journey yourselves.  And there are all the sensational stories. Inspirational stories of people who have turned their tragedies, their sufferings, into triumph and good.  The kind of stories that make the news or become best-selling books.  The amputee who goes on to win Olympic races, the burn victim who volunteers with other burn victims, the parents who lost a child and started a non-profit to help others, the family whose loved one was killed in a shooting and now advocates for safer gun laws, the surviving victim of the horrors of a war who starts an orphanage for the children left behind.  People who have taken their greatest pain and turned it into something wonderful, something hopeful. 


And because there are so many stories like this, it can sometimes make us think this process must be simple.  Or that we are meant to rejoice when bad things happen to us because we know something good will come out of it.  But that is a disservice to those stories – to imagine for a moment that most people from those stories wouldn’t rather not have been sick or lost their loved one or experienced terrible things to begin with.  That even when suffering leads to place of hope, it never erases that the suffering was difficult, was awful, and still is.


It is so important that we do not trivialize other people’s stories by pretending the people in them went from suffering to good in the blink of an eye, or that they don’t still suffer.  We never want to take this passage and use it to try and hurry along the suffering of others trying to get them to a hopeful, inspirational place.  It is hard to bear witness to another’s pain.  With the best of intentions, we want them to be all better. We want to get to the “happy ending” – to stop the pain, to “move on,” but I don’t know of any story of suffering that was that neatly wrapped up with a bow in a hurry.  The triumphs we read about come only after those people have gone through arduous, difficult times.  And even after reaching a place of hope, a place where they can use their suffering to help others, a place where they have grown in endurance and character and empathy, still they have not “moved on.”  They have not forgotten their pain.  They have not forgotten the person they loved and lost or the sickness they fought or the terrible things done to them.  There are still moments, hours, days of sadness and grief. Our hearts may mend, but they are not replaced with brand new hearts. 


And applied to our own lives, when we come to this scripture when we ourselves are suffering, wondering how long it will last, wanting it to be over, we are impatient.  And we want to get to hope ourselves.  But when it doesn’t happen easily or quickly, we don’t want this passage to lead us to believe we don’t have enough faith or God has abandoned us, when we haven’t yet reached a place of hope.  This passage is meant to remind us of God’s promise that we are not alone in our suffering; that we do not need to do anything to earn God’s love because God gives it freely. God’s love, even when it seems frustratingly incremental or we can’t find evidence of it so buried in our suffering, is continuing to work for good.  And so, for each day you wake up and wonder if you have the strength to get through the day, Paul offers the image of God pouring love over you through the Holy Spirit.


Take a moment right now and visualize that - God’s love pouring over you, raining down, covering you completely, surrounding you without pause and without end and no amount of suffering can stop it.  That much love.  For as Paul, a man imprisoned and in danger, says just a few chapters later, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


May we believe this in our own times of suffering and in the days where we live with a good sense of hope in God’s future, may we go to others who are suffering, not to hurry them along, not trying to get them to move on, but as encouragers with a love that is patient and filled with empathy and may we offer one another a hand as we move forward in God’s love together.  Amen. 


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