Dean of the Chapel
May 19, 2011
What gives me hope? Many more things than I can describe to you in the next 10 minutes. I need a framework with which to think about it, so let me make it the words we’ve just heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul was writing to the budding Christian community in Rome, with whom he looked forward one day to visiting. He did get there several years later, but it is thought that he spent significant time in a Roman prison, and did not emerge alive. Paul was well aware of the suffering that followers of Christ’s “way” were enduring in many places. They believed the Good News; they strove to follow it; they were sometimes persecuted by others for having this faith in Jesus; and they lived with the quandary, challenge, and sometimes anguish of living with the all-encompassing hope of Christ’s imminent return….. And that wasn’t happening…. Yet. They were suffering, many of them, suffering because of their faith and certainly suffering from all the difficulties and frailties that mean no human being lives unscathed by disappointment, pain, loss.
I was recently reminded by the ethicist Emilie Townes of words from Audre Lord; Lord had written of “suffering as unmetabolized pain.”Suffering as unmetabolized pain. Pain does come to all of us; Lord is saying that the suffering we live with is the pain that we haven’t yet digested, and that therefore continues to eat away at US. Suffering is what we endure when we haven’t yet digested the pain that has come to us – when we haven’t processed it, when it sits like a lump in our stomachs. What does it mean to metabolize pain? I don’t know what Audre Lord would say; I would say that it means we break it down, we take it apart to understand it, we address and treat whatever aspects we have any control over, and that we then learn either to live with it or to live after it, if it is something that can really be gotten over. In this way we chew it up, we break it down, we process it and we get on with it. How many people do suffer because the pain that has come to them weighs them down from their center, sits unexamined and undigested and untreated, and thus continues to wrack the person for a long time. Suffering. We’ve all been there. Maybe many of us there today are.
I think that the Apostle Paul would agree with Audre Lord that suffering comes from a lack of metabolism of whatever causes one pain. But Paul has a Christian “genealogy” if you will about the end point of any suffering that has been fully and well metabolized: it is hope. Paul has a particular idea about what it means to digest pain, about how to process it and not just sit with it; he sees a faithful and redemptive purpose to the metabolizing of our suffering. It ends in hope, a hope that circles back only to reinforce and to inform our original faith itself. Suffering can indeed be metabolized, processed into the basic nutrients of a life of discipleship that does not shrink from pain but meets it confidently and patiently when it must come, and come it does.
Suffering produces endurance, Paul says. Suffering CAN produce failure, despondency, collapse, but Paul knows that the suffering that is understood within the context of the ASSURANCE we have of the divine love shown in Christ, that suffering can be metabolized into endurance. What enables our metabolism of suffering into endurance is our faith that God will also see to it, as with Christ, that we are delivered from our own suffering, sin, death. Believing this, we have the power to digest our pain, and grow our endurance, our ability to withstand our challenges no matter how intense they feel.
The next stage of our metabolism is transforming our endurance into character. Having become the people who are able to hold out and endure, we learn to use our pain as raw feed to become the kind of people we feel destined to be. Our digestion process changes us; it makes us grow in positive directions. We emerge from old shells and patterns; we grow in our ability to be present to others in their pain; we stretch our wisdom and understanding. We can do this because, again, we believe that, as with Christ, God delivers us from our own suffering, sin and death. Our suffering isn’t meaningless, and it isn’t desired by God, it’s the consequence of living, of living as disciples, of living with the audacity to love and care. Yes, there will be pain.
The final stage of the metabolism of our suffering is when character moves us into hope. At last – hope! Or maybe, “throughout, hope”? We have been hoping all along in our deliverance from suffering and death, and now that hope becomes fully manifest in the whole of our lives. We embody that hope, we live it out completely, we have digested our pain and challenges so that they become the fuel for a total life of hope. Pain will always come, but we know what to do with our suffering; we know how to burn it and transform it into energy for the life of faith.
I’d like to leave you with a very concrete example of something that gives me hope. It’s about suffering, endurance, and character; it is a situation that I interpret through a Christian lens, applying the metabolizing trajectory of Paul’s message to the church in Rome. This may seem strange or inappropriate because the actors in the situation I’m about to describe are primarily Muslim, and Paul’s framework of assurance in Christ is not theirs. It is mine. It is how I see it.
Several weeks ago I was privileged to be in the presence of an American NGO worker and a half dozen people with whom her agency, Tostan, works in Senegal. (This was in Atlanta, not Senegal!) Twenty years ago Tostan came to very rural Senegalese villages that had no running water, electricity, schools, clinics, paved roads – no development. Tostan did basic human rights instruction on education and health care. Community members, mostly women, caught fire with the ideas, and they began to set up opportunities for basic literacy and numeracy, and for basic health care. But they weren’t done. The very idea of human rights was one they began to apply to other parts of their lives – they alone decided to do this. They identified several things that caused them suffering, and they began to work against them through the idea -- the concept -- of human rights. They spoke out against early marriage (often before puberty), they spoke out against forced marriage as another abuse of human rights, and they spoke out against so-called “female circumcision,” which every woman in the region was essentially required to undergo. This last issue fell on deaf ears with the imams in their village, so they went to a nearby village where the imam seemed to be more receptive. He really was, and returned to the original village to help talk to his colleague about why the women’s suffering because of these procedures needed his immediate attention. The local imam agreed to listen to the stories of the women of his village – to listen to how these procedures caused them a lifetime of suffering – physiological, emotional, psychological – how their lives were literally diminished and pained by it. And his heart was moved. He’d never known. It was a tradition over 2,000 years old, one thought to ensure respectability and marriageability for the women and girls one loved – daughters and sisters and cousins and sweethearts. He had no idea of the suffering involved, and that was never the intention of him or any of his fellow male leaders of the village. Their relatives and friends, male and female, young and old, were the greatest gifts of their lives, as ours are to us.
The imam in that village, along with the women leaders there, decided to mount a campaign to talk openly about such “female circumcision” all over the region. To date, 4,800 villages and counting – and probably 750,000 girls and counting – have been spared these practices, and the movement is growing. What gives me hope is that suffering got metabolized into endurance for the long haul, and endurance into the kind of character that speaks truth to power, and that character into the kind of cheeky characters who walk into villages now many miles from their own and tell them there’s hope to end the tradition that has so compromised women’s lives for more than two millennia. I have enormous hope in the simple, profound power of dialogue – of telling stories, of telling other people what hurts, and making it – making ourselves -- fully human to the other.
While I cling to Paul’s particular method, I do think that there are many theological and practical ways to metabolize our pain into hope, and even justice. Wherever we find ourselves, my HOPE is that we may do the work it takes to make HOPE our inheritance in whatever is our situation, and that we may be bearers of hope to those who now dare not have any.