Pushing on the Door of God: Patience in Suffering

(Short homily delivered at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, 14/10/16)

The description of ‘patience’ and ‘endurance’ in today’s James chapter sounds a lot like a description of faithfulness: we are to stay faithful in our suffering. But how? I have had some truly terrifying moments in my life when it felt like I could not endure anymore and I wished my life would end. How do we keep faith through those times? It seems impossible. Perhaps this is because we have the wrong idea of how to stay faithful, or ‘patient’ in our suffering.

We talk about God being ‘full of faith’, ‘faithful’; and what we mean is that He is committed to relationship with us, no matter what. If faithfulness is a relationship, I think our biggest mistake when it comes to pursuing patience in suffering is trying to endure alone. If you’re like me, you heard this passage in James and read it as an individual, not as a community member. But at the same time, if you’re like me, some of the moments of true encouragement in your faith have been when you have gone from feeling alone to remembering that you are not, because you shared your suffering with someone. The experience of faith is not meant to be a solitary one. As Christians, we have put our faith in the only person – the Son of Man – who ever suffered completely alone – and He has not permitted anyone to suffer alone since.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 16, after a series of traumatic events. I have been on different forms of medication for anxiety and depression ever since. One of the hardest things about depression is how alone it makes you feel – even when you’re not. People seem like strangers – you fear that they are distant, and then you want them to be. There comes a point when you start feeling guilty for even existing. There is this feeling of disconnectedness to the rest of the world, a longing to feel part of it in a way you don’t feel you are. A wall of numbness seems to separate you from everyone else. And sometimes people in the church have reinforced that loneliness, with their fear of my diagnosis, or their unwillingness to understand, or their advice to just pray more, and harder, and to have more faith, and all will be healed. But I have also been surrounded by Christians who have allowed me to name my depression as it is, and they have loved me. Their willingness to take some share of my pain was a covenant, a promise to love me, even though it was no light burden that they were offering to carry. We must not only be patient in our own sufferings, but patient in bearing the sufferings of others. We are never alone, and as Christians we can remind each other that God is there: there is no ‘I’ in our endurance of suffering.

God comes to us gently, with human hands that hold us when we cry, and it is only later that we realise that God was there in the touch of others. That is not to say that humans can replace the divine. But we can present the divine to each other. If we are to be the body of Christ, then that seems exactly what we are called to do. Loving those suffering begins in being willing to listen without restriction as they share pain, and trusting that God is present with us.

Imagine the loss of God’s presence! Jesus’ suffering on the cross was under true conditions of utter loneliness: no one with whom to share his pain – not even his heavenly Father, in the end. Picture the world’s suffering on His shoulders, unable to tell even His closest friends the huge burden He bears. And, worst of all, the one person who might know, who might hear, who might share in this torment, has shut the door: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani. The door of God had never been shut before. Praise be to God, the door has never been shut since.

In some ways, the love I have received in the midst of my mental illness has convinced me of this. God’s door has never been shut for us. Sometimes it is hard to see it open, because we convince ourselves that the door should look like cosmic signs instead of human faces. But if the Door of God can be found in the comfort of human touch – if Christ can be found in human arms and hands – we are not only able to stand like welcomed beggars before the Door, clutching our suffering and knowing that it will be received, but we are able to help each other come to the Door of God. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” What a privilege! May we all learn what a privilege it is to bear with each other as we seek patience in suffering!

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Six Months In.

I lie in bed, my face leaking, my cough verging on the Dickensian, and a fever providing a grimly welcome protective glow in this brutal, NEVER ENDING New England winter, I decide that this is a great time to acknowledge passing the six-month mark.

So here it is: I’ve been doing the being-in-America, Yale-Divinity-School thing for over 6 months now, and, with each passing day, I am finding it increasingly difficult to believe that it still isn’t Spring Break. 

On the other hand, there have been lovely things this semester. I haven’t spent all of it (or even most of it) feeling like I have all the structural integrity of a wet paper bag.Today I helped a group of children plant seeds/rub water and soil into their t-shirts/hair/faces, some for the first time.

There was also that rare moment when I looked at the snow falling under lamplight and didn’t feel hollow hatred about the fact that it’s so cold I recently burnt my face – in fact, I almost felt awe.

Last week I talked about Dante with a group of incarcerated men and thought that maybe all this studying might be worth something after all. I’ve eaten a lot of burritos. I’ve received/given schnuggles. I’ve heard my mouth keep talking even when my brain was no longer paying attention. I’ve played Beer Pong against ex-frat boys and almost won. I’ve tweeted thousands of characters, catalogued/shelved/sorted hundreds of books, emptied tens of compost bins. I’ve watched A LOT of The (U.S.) Office. I’ve watched my first ever Super Bowl. I’ve been to ice hockey games.

I have tried being vegetarian.

My prayers remain arbitrary, nonsensical, distracted. I’ve tried giving up saying “I’m busy” for Lent, and have realised that I’ve simply replaced it with whining about the weather instead/brag-plaining about how many pairs of socks I’m wearing (have you seen how cold it is? It’s SO cold. I think my pores have frozen shut). I have been anxious, tired, excitable, angry, happy. I have regretted hours wasted, and have wished I spent more time doing nothing. I have written bad blog post drafts, and deleted most of them. In fact, as I write this, I’m wondering whether I should delete this one, too. But then I haven’t posted in a while, and I’m sick/feverish enough to believe that this is passable. I’ll probably regret it tomorrow.

Six months in, friends. *winces* *gulps tea*

9 Circles of Graduate Student Hell

I was going to post this on Halloween, but – meh. I’m a graduate student. 

LIMBO: Second Career students: Not actually condemned to the same fate as the rest of us (unemployment or terminal education) since they can always fall back on their previous job, these are people who have the life skills for survival in the real world – and yet have somehow ended up here. Wistfully looking out at the place they might be – with all the normal, grownup people – they don’t quite have the courage to leave. Some of them might even pretend they’re happy with the choice they’ve made. They’re lying.

First Circle: The Ones Who Seem Genuinely Happy To Be Here: They’ve almost certainly posted a picture of a huge pile of reading/ taken a selfie in a library at some point today, and if you don’t know anyone like this, this is probably you. Genuinely delighted/overwhelmed/#blessed to be at grad school, they insist on telling everyone. All the time. And we can’t get annoyed with them, because they’re so earnest about it. It would be like getting cross with a slightly excitable puppy. Good for you, first circle kids. It won’t last.

Punishment: at some point – they don’t know when, or how – that first seed of doubt will be planted. And then it will torture them forever. And the rest of us sinners will be secretly pleased, and then hate ourselves.

Second Circle: The Worriers: Am I smart enough to be here? How will I ever get all this reading done? Why did they let me in? Eeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhconstantly in a state of crisis/close to a panic attack, there’s very little you can say to these sad cases – if you ever see them. They’re much too busy writing anxious things on social media from the library. You can try reassuring them, but they won’t hear it. The best thing to do is treat them as you would a pet with social anxiety – slide treats under their door and don’t make any sudden movements.

Punishment: I’m afraid the gates of hell are locked on the inside for the Worrier. Sad.

Third Circle: The Existential Crisis Club: You’d think these guys would manifest in similar ways to the worriers, but the Existential Crisis Club don’t spend all their time tortured by doubt – that would be exhausting and distracting – unless a deadline is approaching, or there is Actual Work to be done. Then ‘what am I doing here?’ bubbles to the surface, and they’ll start making vague comments about wanting to go and start a commune or live in a tree. At certain times of year, (finals week/paper deadlines) their collective angst is so great that The Worriers will experience a double dose of anxiety, and even The Ones Who Seem Genuinely Happy To Be Here will feel shaken.

Punishment: An eternity of asking ‘Why am I here?’ and hearing a very, very quiet whispered response – “Honestly? I don’t know.”

Fourth Circle: The Smug Ones: They’ve probably come straight from undergrad, have an air of practiced boredom about them, and don’t seem fazed by any of their classes. They might condescend to offer to help you, out of the smugness of their hearts, and you’ll accept, of course, but still find them deeply irritating. Loves sound of own voice. Probably writes a blog about how right they are.

Punishment: An eternity of having their waving hands and twitching mouths ignored in class, listening to other people Just. Not. Getting. It.

Fifth Circle: The Whiner: Nothing’s quite right. Cousin of the Smug and the Existential Crisis Club, the Whiner isn’t happy. With anything. Are you enjoying a beautiful autumn day and a nice bit of reading? They aren’t. And they’re going to tell you why.

Punishment: No one will ever ask them how they’re doing. Ever again. All that backed up whining will eventually lead to a brain aneurism, which they still won’t be able to complain about.

Sixth Circle: That Nah-It’s-Totally-Fine-Guy: Working? Nope. Stressed about it? Nope. Paper due? Always. ‘It’ll get done’ they say, as they lie on the sofa watching football. And they’re right. They will get it done. And it will be totally fine. And this annoys the hell out of everyone else.

Punishment: That feeling of seeing the printer jam when you’re 2 minutes away from a deadline? That. Distilled and served over ice. For eternity.

Seventh Circle: The ALL-OF-THE-ISMS-guy: They just saw this and got irritated that I put ‘guy’ instead of a more gender neutral word to describe them. Constantly checking their own privilege (and other people’s), they’ve constructed a ‘correct’ language for academia so complex that it is easier to communicate in mime. Makes Being Offended By Things look like a competitive sport. Has definitely marched for something in the last 6 months.

Punishment: Listening to old, dead, straight, white, men say clever, sensitive and insightful things forever, with no way of interrupting them.

 Eighth Circle: The Perpetual Student: The people who like being in hell are definitely more morally deficient than the rest of us. These people already have a Master’s degree in something. Probably something utterly unrelated to what they’re doing now. They’re either geniuses, or have Mafia connections, because there’s no other way they could be paying for this stuff.

Punishment: Waking up to face an eternity in a suit, a tie and a high-rise building.

Ninth Circle: The PhD Candidate: The worst of the worst. There is no redemption possible. These are the ones who have seen hell and decided they like it enough that they want to stay. Possibly masochists, definitely sick, they slide in past The Perpetual Student because one day they want to make money out of other people arriving in hell, and keeping them here. Do not listen to their lies.

Punishment: It’s coming to them. Maybe it’ll come in 3 years, maybe 4, maybe 5 – but the thesis is coming. AND THEN THEY’LL BE SORRY.