Any of you been through hard times?
I’m guessing most of you have. We’re in the midst of global “hard times” right now, as we ride the waves of this pandemic. Sometimes we get to feeling it’s calm waters and smooth sailing…only to be upended by a tsunami of bad news.
But suffering isn’t limited to global pandemics…we all know suffering at times in our own lives. In this letter to the church in Corinth, Paul talks about his suffering….and Paul’s suffering is caused by his struggle with the legal system…his conflicts with other church members… and his battle with depression. Paul has been imprisoned, beaten by the authorities, and threatened with death. His churches have badmouthed him and fought with him…choosing self-indulgence over love for one another. He has despaired…felt like giving up on life altogether. And truthfully, this is the kind of suffering that many face in our world…many of us face. The suffering of conflicts with those we love. The suffering of mental illness and addiction and trauma…in ourselves and those we love. The suffering of bodies betraying us, riddled with disease, hurting and broken. The systemic suffering of those who face legal systems that fail them.
Hard times are nothing new…some of you are facing them right now — sickness, financial hardship, conflicts at home or at work, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addiction. What Paul has experienced in the midst of his suffering..….what I hope you experience in the midst of yours…is God’s comfort…God’s consolation. “God”, he says, “is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation.” This is who God is. In the midst of our pain, God is not absent. God isn’t watching in judgement. God is with us, holding us, with mercy and tenderness and love. This is God who was revealed in Jesus. Jesus, ‘God with us’, who finds those who are hurting…seeks out the lost, the sick, the dying. Jesus…who comforts the grieving — Mary and Martha at the death of their brother Lazarus. Jesus…who experiences unjust suffering……and Jesus, who loves and heals and resurrects.
In the midst of our pain…our struggles….God is with us. We are never alone. God knows our hearts and our cries and even our deepest secrets. And reassures us, over and over again…that nothing, nothing in all creation…not even death…can separate us from God’s love. We are held. Fiercely. And tenderly.
But there’s something else going on here for Paul. And that is the fact that just as we are consoled by God…we become part of God’s consolation for others.
Paul says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, 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.”
This is a verse often read at funerals…I remember it being read at both of my parents’ funerals…and it speaks to the reality that our experience of grief..our experience of suffering…is often what allows us to be the best source of comfort and care for others going through the same thing.
Some of you might be familiar with Chuck Colson. He was imprisoned after Watergate for his part in the illegal workings of the Nixon presidency. At first he was angry…wondering why he had to suffer the humiliation, the shame, the disgrace of prison when so many others did far worse and never were prosecuted. But, here’s what happened… while he was in prison he learned what prisoners go through. He saw these forgotten men and women of our American society — he saw the injustices they often face, and the difficulty, even the impossibility of reclaiming their lives …of recovering after their imprisonment — and his faith moved him to compassion…to want to help. After he got out of prison, he devoted his life to ministering to those who are in prison….and his ministries have changed countless lives. His experience of suffering allowed him to help and care for those who were going through the same thing.
Yes…we may not understand why we suffer when others don’t. Why our loved ones died when others didn’t. Why we struggle and others have it easy. Why we have been hurt when others haven’t. But what we do know is that God is with us…in the midst of whatever we are going through. And the truth is…our experience…our story…is what can give us the ability to help others going through the same thing.
Vets with PTSD, coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq….have found their most meaningful support from Vietnam vets…because they understood. They got it. Those who are grieving find comfort sharing with others who know what it is to lose their spouse…their child. Those who face cancer, find strength in talking with those who have travelled that road before. God consoles us…gives us strength and hope in the midst of unbearable, crushing pain at times….through others who have been through our same struggle and pain. They become our support and consolation. And later….we too, will be able to be there for someone else.
This is what this human family is meant to be about. What our family of faith should always be about. Knowing that God is with us…whatever we face…holding us fiercely and tenderly…but also being there for one another…fiercely and tenderly…when others face what we have.
Of course part of this requires being vulnerable enough to share what we have faced. Many of us do not want to acknowledge our suffering — we would rather keep our pain invisible. We don’t want others to know we have struggled with depression…or alcoholism. We don’t want others to know we have been abused. There is so much shame attached to our suffering at times…that it is easier to keep it to ourselves. We want to look like we have it all together. Yet…when we acknowledge our struggles…we allow for the opportunity to be a consolation to others who are going through the same thing.
I know it’s not easy. I went through five miscarriages silently…because I didn’t want anyone to know. It took me forever to acknowledge to others that I take medication for depression…because I was afraid of what people might think…not realizing that many people needed to hear my story…so they could get the help they needed. God consoles us…that we might console one another. God is there for us, in the midst of all we go through…so we might be there for one another. We might walk together…as God walks with us.
We need to know that we are not alone on this journey. Especially in hard times. We need to know that God is with us. We also need to know that there are others who walk with us. Paul has had hard, hard times. And honestly…these folks in Corinth have been part of the problem. There has been so much conflict and hurt between them. But still, Paul acknowledges the faith they share in God who loves and redeems and resurrects. Still, Paul embraces their shared walk with Christ…they are on this journey together…even if they don’t always agree…even if they don’t always even like each other.
And one of the ways they do that… is through prayer. Paul says that his trust, in the midst of being unbearably crushed, is in God who resurrects the dead…who has rescued him in the past and will rescue him again and again. But, he says, “you also join in helping by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted to us through the prayers of many.” Paul is grateful for their prayers for him….and he also prays, always, for them.
Prayer matters. Lifting one another up in prayer matters. Knowing we are being prayed for matters. When we are being held by others in the presence of God…it makes a difference. It changes us. It changes the energy that connects us. It changes our reality. When we hold others in prayer…we make a difference for them…and for us. We walk together.
Folks…life can be hard…very hard. It can feel sometimes, like we are being utterly, unbearably crushed. But we are not alone. God is with us….and we are in this together. Whatever road you travel, there are those who have gone that way before you…may they reach out to you …may you reach out to them. And may we hold on to one another with the fierce tenderness with which God holds on to us. And may we compassionately, consistently, lift one another in prayer. And, dear friends, may our hope be unshaken…in God who raises the dead…who rescues us….again and again and again. Amen.