I’ve never been to a funeral where a single bouquet of flowers hid the entire casket. The casket couldn’t have been more than 18 inches long. It was cold. It was windy. It was November. The cemetery was a small clearing in the heart of rural hills and trees that were fall hollows of their former spring selves.
The people shuffled around, kicking browned leaves, glancing at the casket, trying not to stare at the would’ve-been parents. “That’s just what He wanted baby,” the almost-mother replied to a questioning child.
The small group of relatives gathered to hear the preacher’s answers: “We gather here together on this somber occasion…As we are family…In Joey’s memory…I know you have…questions…anger…pain…Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense…”
Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes, we just can’t understand.
Against this picture stands another set of word-thoughts: “Immanuel,” “Incarnation,” “Good News,” “Hope,” “Life abundant.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t say “against this picture.” Perhaps I should say “within” or “alongside this picture.” For, more and more, I am convinced that these words (Good News and the like) say great and deep things about our God and His response to and view of suffering. Moreover, I am convinced that we cannot fully understand the meaning of these words when we detach ourselves from suffering.
What is hope? What does “life abundant” even mean in the midst of incredible, inexplicable, seemingly-arbitrary pain and suffering? What is “Good News” for the poor, for the almost-mother, for the once-was-wife?
Sure, our classrooms, our theologians, our Scriptures can give us a veiled understanding of these answers and ideas, but it is only in the midst of suffering itself that we begin to know. (And I do not presume that I have begun to know.)
If this is true that we cannot fully understand things that are central to the Gospel apart from suffering, what does this mean? Can we know God, can we know Christ’s Gospel without knowing suffering and its cousins and victims? Can we know Him apart from our poor, our broken, our crushed neighbor? Can we know Him apart from the grinding poverty of our brothers and sisters?
I’m not sure that we can. In fact, I think that our tendency—if we detach ourselves from the suffering of our neighbor—is to conflate these very words of the Gospel (Good News, life-abundant, etc.) with cultural values that are often foreign to our Lord. This is a dangerous, and idolatrous, place to be. But we are so good at avoiding suffering—ours and others.
I do not mean to be morbid here. I do not mean to assert that we enter into suffering for suffering’s sake. Instead, I propose that we enter into the suffering of our neighbors for (at least) two reasons (and there is more to say about these two). First, we enter because God Himself did not sit idly by while this world suffered and raged against itself. Instead, we meet Him, beat Him, bury Him—”in the flesh.” Secondly, we enter because of Christ’s identification with the poor and suffering (Mt. 25:31-46). Can we truly know the Lord if we do not in some way enter into the anguish of our neighbors: “love thy neighbor.”
“Immanuel,” “Incarnation,” “Good News,” “Hope,” “Life abundant”: the Almighty Creator of the Universe poured Himself out, leaving all behind and becoming nothing, even unto death in the most shameful and torturous manner (Phil. 2:6-11). And He calls us to a lifestyle that is the same—making ourselves nothing, entering into the lives of our neighbors. “Follow me,” He says.
I do not suppose that I have this all figured out and to hint that I do not seek my own comfort above most other things. But I do believe that we must lay down ourselves: that we must travel down hollows to stand in the emptiness with would-be-parents; that we must share tables, meals and lives together with our neighbors who are struggling; that we must—in a myriad of small and great ways—attempt to find the glory of the Lord manifested in the sacrament of the poor and suffering. In the process, it is often that we do find our Lord, that we do love our neighbor, and that we also find ourselves.