The Sound of Suffering
Based on Lamentations 1:1-6, Psalm 137, 2Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
The Buddha taught that suffering and misery exist and are an expected part of our human lives. The English lay-person and spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill noted that “Pain plunges like a sword through all creation”. Eugene Peterson, best known for his paraphrase of the Bible known as “The Message”, stated that Christians should be experts on suffering because our identifying symbol is the Cross – a tool of torture and death. All of us who have lived a while have come in contact with some level of suffering. It is hard for us, maybe, to describe what suffering is – it seems to be so individual. Yet, like many things in life that are difficult to describe, we know suffering when we encounter it.
Most of my adult life has been spent in close relationship to suffering and death. I am not sure why it is that I have been guided into those arenas of Emergency Departments, Intensive Care Units and the crises of fellow humans – or why I keep being placed in situations where I am most apt to come into contact with suffering. The definition of the word compassion is “to suffer with” – and that has been central to my life since I first walked into a hospital Pharmacy Department in July of 1984. What I have noticed over these many decades is that all suffering has a sound. In some situations it is an anxious silence, in others it is a loud and high-pitched keening, shouting and/or collapsing; mostly it is somewhere in between or contains some aspects at some point of all the above. All persons who suffer will in one way or another express their suffering.
“Lament,” said South African theologian Denise Ackermann, “is the sound suffering makes when it recovers its voice.” Devastation can overwhelm and silence us for a while, but sooner or later we recover our voices and find a way to express our suffering. Our scriptures this week from Lamentations and Psalm 137 give voice to the suffering of the people of God – and show us the way to give voice to our suffering as well. The scriptures from the Gospel and Epistle remind us that lament can only possible and healing when we expect that God is there to hear our cry. Let us go to God now in prayer and thanksgiving that God never leaves us to suufer alone…
Jesus has been saying some pretty challenging things to the Disciples, those gathered around Him and to us over the last few chapters of Luke. The Disciples have had enough – they have come to believe that there is something in them that is lacking in the face of Jesus’ teachings. They say emphatically to our Lord, “Increase our faith!”, because they feel that this is all that is required of them to be able to do all that Jesus does. If they just had more faith…if we just had more faith…is that really what Jesus has been teaching them?
The writer of 2Timothy is writing in the style of Paul but is not Paul. He knows that Timothy is currently suffering (“recalling your tears”) but that Timothy has great faith which has been transmitted to him by two generations of women. He reminds Timothy that within him lies the faith that is powerful because it is enlivened by love and self-discipline. He reminds Timothy that he has been saved for a purpose that is holy and grace-filled through the suffering of Jesus. Timothy is told to “guard the good treasure entrusted to you” through the power of the Holy Spirit and the sound teachings of Jesus.
The readings from Lamentations, which is a continuation of Jeremiah, and Psalm 137 are lock step in their tales of woe. The exiled Jews are tormented by their captors who ask them to sing songs of joy about what was destroyed; to sing about the power and greatness of their God. Lamentations puts their plight this way, “…Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress….” The Psalmist ends his song with a view to the payback that Babylon will receive – that which has been promised by God. The lamenter has no such victory to speak of yet, but the sound of his suffering is quite eloquent.
Lamentation is our vocal response to suffering, it may be delayed, but it is always present. Christians are called into the suffering of humanity when they truly begin to participate in a cruciform life; a life which understands the suffering of the Christ was shared first-hand as a loving response by God for the suffering of humans. This is the point of the Cross…this is the point of our Christian lives both individually and as a church universal. Church teaching and doctrine has often allowed us to focus more of our finite time and energy on the glory of the second coming while ignoring the reality of the suffering of the world. Douglas John Hall in his challenging book entitled, “God and Human Suffering”, has this to say about how the Church has so often gotten this wrong; forgotten the good teachings as in 2Timothy.
Hall says, “…The object, surely, is not to create more suffering, [sic martyrdom] a special sort of religious suffering which can be recounted afterwards (always to the shame of the wicked world) and celebrated and set down, so to speak, as a point for our side! The object, rather, is to identify oneself with the suffering that is already there in one’s world, to let oneself be led by the love of Christ into solidarity with those who suffer, and to accept the consequences of this solidarity in the belief – the joyful belief – that in this way God is still at work in the world, making a conquest of its sin and suffering from within….”
It is time to give voice to our collective suffering. Our response as Christians to the suffering of the world is to lament – to be vocal about what it is that we not only see and hear about, but the suffering in which we participate. This does not necessarily mean, for example, that we must become homeless in order to be in solidarity with those who find themselves unsheltered. Rather it means that we must loudly and persistently lament that being unsheltered is even a possibility in a country where the GDP is more than $20 trillion. We must therefore lament the growing chasm in wealth, along with all the other social injustices that we as a humans’ face. We must rediscover the joyful belief that when we are led by the love of the Christ into the suffering of the world, that God will help us overcome it.
Disciples of the Christ, we don’t need more faith or more money or more time to do what it is Jesus wants us to do. What we need is to recover the spiritual discipline of lament – to put words to the evil and sin that cause the suffering all around us. We need to focus ourselves and get involved personally in as much of the suffering as we can – however we are gifted. All of us need to lament the suffering that we see and speak the truth of Jesus into it. Speak the gospel into those “powers and principalities” that exist in every human sphere which oppress and marginalize other humans. The gospel truth that all we really need to do to realize God’s shalom is to love God with all that we are and all that we have, and to love our neighbors enough that we will not silently tolerate the suffering that they experience. Then we need to trust that God will be at work with us to provide what is required. Lament is the sound that suffering makes when it recovers its voice. Christians arise and speak; the world is crying out for us to make some noise!
Amen and amen!