HOW DO WE FIND SOLIDARITY in suffering and grief?
Recently, I preached on the question, “If God has a plan for my life, does God plan to give me cancer?”
It’s a rawer version of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” One of my struggles in preparing for this sermon was what to say. How does one choose Scriptures when so much of Scripture addresses the problem of pain, either directly or indirectly?
I chose to focus on the questions, “Where is God when I suffer? Where is God when I grieve?” The question that goes unanswered related to this question is, “Where are others when I suffer? Where are others as I grieve?” One of our staff members, as we discussed the content of this sermon, noted that suffering is often an isolating experience. God feels distant in our pain. More importantly, others feel distant — perhaps they purposefully retreat out of fear or discomfort, or perhaps we withdraw, or perhaps the presence of others, because of the normality of their lives, hurts us.
One of the Scripture texts I chose for this sermon was Job 42:1-6. However, Job could be an entire sermon series on suffering and pain. Job’s friends are present to Job through his pain, but their presence is only comforting for a week. Why one week? In that week they say nothing. But after that week, frustrated with Job’s apparent misunderstanding of God, they try to convince Job that they know why he is suffering… and the longer they argue and the less they listen the more distant their relationship with Job becomes.
How do we stand in solidarity with others as they suffer, as they grieve, as they experience pain? I suggest that being present to listen — rather than to speak — is the best place to start. Even after six years of pastoral experience, sometimes I still feel threatened by the grief of others — by its intensity, by the uncomfortable questions asked in the space of suffering, by the knowledge that I am not immune to grief or pain, and by my own doubts and fears about God’s character and God’s presence in suffering.
What helps when we slam against our own fears and doubts and anxieties while walking alongside someone in pain? Lately, I’ve found that artistic expressions of grief, when they are real and authentic, offer catharsis and wisdom and a place for me to listen to another’s experience of grief without needing to fix it.
My husband purchased Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, “Carrie and Lowell” and listened to it over and over and over again. During a long flight several months later, I listened to the album in its entirety. It’s a raw but poetic expression of Sufjan’s journey of grief as his mother Carrie died of cancer. Not all of his lyrics are immediately accessible to the more concrete listener (like me). But, isn’t that what grief is like? A confusion of feelings and memories and desires that wax and wane and surprise?
The beauty of this album is not in how it teaches about grief, but in how it expresses grief. The poet invites us into his interior life, and deep pain is made beautiful by reflection and expression. When we struggle to stand in solidarity with others in their grief or pain, when we are faced with our fears about pain, perhaps the best thing we can do is listen without judgment and see what emerges from the grief or pain.
I recommend “Carrie and Lowell” to anyone walking alongside a grieving friend, family member, or congregant. It is a reminder — of the kind that we all need from time to time — that beauty can emerge from pain.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas.