“He was…a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” Isaiah 53:3
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened…” Matt. 11:28a
Is there any thing weirder than the prayer request session before Sunday school starts?
Really, guys. I have been in tons of these things–lots of different classes and lots of different churches–and I have to say that from an outside perspective, they must be totally bizarre. Just picture it from a stranger’s point of view: people file into class dressed in the spectrum of clothing that constitutes “Sunday best.” We sit and smile and laugh and joke and make sometimes awkward, often shallow small talk, chit-chatting about the weather and the ball games and the small illnesses that are going around. The conversations consist of the safe stuff, the type of light banter that suits a group that consists both of lifelong friends and barely-acquaintances that make up a typical Sunday school class. And then, the class is called to order amidst jokes of never starting on time (always a feature, no matter what class it is). Next, it is suggested that we open with a prayer, and the class is asked if they have any requests.
It’s a neutral question: prayer requests can be either happy or sad–or neither. But generally, the prayer requests break down like this: 5% thanksgiving, 10% neutral concerns (safe travel, etc), and 85% suffering. In just a few minutes span, the class’ conversation has shifted from breezy analyses of the latest basketball game to detailed descriptions of close friends’ cancer battles. In a whiplash-inducing shift, the class puts away their happy, small-talk masks, and unearths all the troubles of their world. News pours forth of terminal diseases, of biopsies and test results, of not knowing how much longer so-and-so has. Requests are brought forward, sometimes with tears, for marriages that are crumbling, drug addictions that are destroying, job searches that are seemingly unending. Often, these prayer request sessions go on for fifteen or twenty minutes, as if the dam has broken and more suffering keeps pouring through the breach. It seems that everyone knows someone who is in some state of crisis–if they are not in the crisis themselves, which is also often the case. Sympathetic groans and sighs fill the room as the tales of pain, and often death, are shared. In short, we collect all the suffering that’s willing to be shared; we draw it out and present it all to God.
And then, we start class.
Can you tell me anywhere else, outside of group therapy, where that happens? Maybe I don’t get out enough, but I can tell you that I never had any other class, or was a part of any other group outside of church where people set aside time to pour out their suffering to each other. And what’s more, Sunday school classes (and whole congregations) often compile these prayer requests, and the good Christian is expected to revisit this liturgy of pain daily. It is desired that at some point during our mundane routines of survival, we will pause and rehash this collection of suffering before God.
I think it is a really beautiful thing, perhaps one of the best things about church.
See, no one likes suffering. We don’t want to suffer, and what’s more, we don’t want to think about suffering. The human desire is to escape the idea of suffering as much as possible. I’ve been struck lately by the degree to which even the music we listen to (besides Adele) and the movies and television shows we watch downplay suffering. Kelly Clarkston thanks the man who broke her heart for making her “Stronger” in a song that assures listeners that they need not mourn even after an intimate relationship implodes. Mission Impossible 4’s Ethan Hunt (as well as every other action hero in the movies or on television) takes beatings that should land him in the hospital, if not the morgue, but he faithfully emerges, no worse for the wear. Even the bad guys have supernatural strength!
Because really, we don’t want to see our hero lying on the ground, crying, even if that’s what he should be doing. We can barely stand the thought of people in real pain, and we don’t want that stuff around us. I think that it is the human tendency to busily construct little bubbles around ourselves and our family, bubbles that keep all that suffering and misery safely out. Even though the bubble is always perilously thin, we find its presence strangely reassuring.
Church pops our bubble.
In church, you can’t escape suffering. For one thing, we talk about it practically every time we gather. For another thing, if someone in your church family is suffering, it’s definitely expected that you darn well do something about it. When you are an active member of a church family, there’s no real option to turn your back on your suffering brother or sister. I think about my parents’ church right now. They have been hit with death after tragic death lately. The news coming out of that beleaguered church is positively grim. And even though none of the deceased is related to my parents, their lives have been transformed by the suffering of their Body. Practically speaking, that means that their existence has consisted of way too many hospital visits, way too many meals cooked for grieving families, way too much time sitting and crying with bereaved family members, way too many funerals and visitations, way too many sorrowful Sundays. And on an interior level, I know it has been hard on them. After all, when your church suffers, you suffer. It becomes a part of your life until the suffering passes.
Perhaps this all sounds pretty depressing. Like I said, it is not our natural tendency to seek out suffering. On the contrary, our default setting is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s just how we roll. But it occurs to me that when we embrace the suffering around us instead of running from it, we are following the very steps of Christ. He was after all, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Suffering didn’t scare him, which is why he could invite the weary and burdened to come to him and find rest. To me, that means a disciple of Christ should be able to do the same thing. We should not let our distaste for suffering cripple us; on the contrary, we should be able to open up our arms to those who are hurting, to carry their burdens alongside them. Hurting people were drawn to Jesus. They knew Jesus would not shrink away from them. They knew he would see them, touch them, help them. And so they came from everywhere, a parade of suffering, to see this man who could handle it.
And we are the body of Christ now. And I know, I know we get a bad rap sometimes about how we treat hurting people, and some of it is deserved. But I also know that I have been blessed my all of my church families, and from my personal, limited experience, I would say that the church is better at this than we have been given credit for. In my life, church is the one place where people don’t shrink from suffering, where they allow it to flow out into the open, where they face it head on through prayer and tears and hugs and meals and cards. Yes, we drop the ball sometimes, but we do try.
My time is up for this post, and I haven’t even gotten to the coolest part. That will have to wait for Thursday, I guess. Until then, though, I just want to leave you with the image of Jesus opening his arms out to the world, saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
He still says that.
And He still does it.
And He does it through the church, the collectors of suffering.