Tuesday, June 12, 2007

First We Suffer... Then What?


I'm reading Irving Stone's Lust for Life, a biographical novel about the life of Vincent Van Gogh. In yesterday's post, I described the way in which Stone portrayed Van Gogh's heartache over a woman named Ursula who spurned his love. In subsequent pages, we read about Van Gogh's response to pain. Ursula is now married to someone else and the artist is smacked in the face with the reality that the woman he loves will never be his.

So he turns his focus elsewhere. He immerses for a time deeply into the ministry. His family has the means to advance him to a nice safe job as a pastor in a sheltered little city. It would be gentle, undemanding spiritual feeding and tending of a gentle, undemanding flock. But Van Gogh's heart drums for something else. It's the suffering to whom he will gravitate. It's in the slums and the bleak, cast-off, 19th century coal mining communities that Van Gogh lands as an evangelist. Here amidst metastatic suffering he has found an identity and a fitting home.

In Stone's fictionalized account of Van Gogh's young adult years, pain led the artist to God, then God made that pain profitable in service to others.

This leads me to question what we do with our own suffering. When we're nailed by life's inevitable fast-moving curve ball. Do we pull the covers up and stay in bed? Do we top off our wine glass? Do we pop a pill? Do we choke the life out of someone we're clinging to? Do we shop? Do we eat? Do we cheat on our spouse? Do we pick a fight with someone we love? Do we find someone unsuspecting to gossip about?

Or do we bypass all the unhealthy stuff and run like mad into the open arms of God? This, of course, is the right response. The thing we should do. The thing we, ideally, learn to do as we grow more mature in our faith and closer to God.

But what about the side roads we've taken? What about the mistakes we've made? What about the junk in our past? Or the junk in our present? Are these merely sources of shame and regret, like some old record that has a bad spot that skips from time to time in our heads so we can bog down in guilt?

Or is there more to pain and junk than that? Are we, perhaps, to take what we've learned from stumbles and detours and falls and learn something so that we might better serve others?

I have a connection to certain people. Cancer survivors, for one. When I meet someone who has endured cancer, I don't need to know another thing about him. I don't even need to know his name. By virtue of our shared detour, we are instantly bonded. I can minister to cancer patients because I get what they're going through. Reformed alcoholics and drug addicts can minister to people abusing alcohol and drugs because they get it. People who are healed and on the other side of broken marriages can minister to families in crisis because they get it.

In psalms with lament characteristics, the author sometimes appeals to God to mitigate his suffering or rescue him from enemy assault, then makes the case that there's still good work to be accomplished.

Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Selah. Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

Psalm 88: 10-12

I've found in my own life that running to God in search of respite is only part of the equation. Safety First, as the slogan goes. Then what? There's nothing in this world that can give me the peace and joy and comfort I receive from God. I have spent many a day broken and quivering under the mighty protective wing of God described in Psalm 91. But the nest is not meant to keep us forever sheltered from the world. There comes a time when we are nourished and strengthened and emboldened and ready to soar. Not a lofty solo flight. But off we go in search of the ones on the road we once traveled... those who do not know what we know.

Question: Who do you connect to and why?

(Photo by ZenPanda, see http://flickr.com/photos/sanityelludesme/331341855/ for restrictions.)


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