Friday, March 17, 2006

Embracing Suffering

One of the hallmarks of my church, and one I very much appreciate, is its focus on embracing suffering. The idea is that where there is brokenness, darkness, dysfunction, that is where the church should be. I’m thankful for the many people in my church who lay it on the line daily, often at great risk to themselves, and who strive to be light in the midst of sometimes overwhelming darkness. They do it within our church community in ministering to the broken people in our midst (pretty much all of us, as best I can tell), within our local community as a whole, and indeed throughout the world. They do it by reaching out to those who reside in a nursing home for the destitute in Columbus, Ohio, by bringing life and love to orphans in Cambodia, by offering healing and wholeness to kids sold into sex slavery in Thailand. It’s not about writing checks. It’s about being there, in person, and being the face and arms and legs and heart of Jesus for real, tangible human beings of infinite worth.

I confess that I often feel inadequate and overwhelmed by such a focus. I like my nice, comfortable suburban life. Confrontations with the Boss from Hell often seem like all of the spiritual drama I need during any given week, and I have no great desire to ratchet up the level of warfare. Embrace suffering? Maybe I’ll just write about it. Let’s call it a big blog hug and be done with it, okay?

Without going in to too many gory details, my family history, what I lived with growing up, included adultery, alcoholism, mental illness, emotional and physical abuse, suicide attempts, ambulance lights flashing in the driveway in the middle of the night. You would think that someone in his fifties ought to be over it by now, but I am not. My natural inclination is still to run from it, and in the past I’ve chosen some fairly unhealthy ways of running. My family coped, if you can call it that, by ignoring the madness. We never talked about it, and we studiously avoided any mention of the insanity. Pay no attention to that slavering, fanged monster over in the corner.

I used to think that no one could have possibly experienced some of the things I’ve experienced. I told myself that somehow the level of suffering I encountered was enough for anyone in one lifetime, that I’d had my quota, and that nobody would understand me or believe me if I shared my story anyway. I’ve since come to realize that my story is far from unique, that many people have experienced variations on the Theme from Terror World, and that what I encountered was only a tiresome repetition of an old, sad story.

And so on some level I came to an uneasy truce with my past. I recognized it for what it was, found some level of healing and wholeness, and experienced some degree of real freedom and joy in my new life with my wife and kids. I figured that I’d carry the shrapnel around until I died, but at least I wasn’t going to die from my wounds.

Over the course of the last year the shrapnel has flared up again, and old wounds that I thought were healed have become infected and inflamed and angry red. I don’t know of a powder or pill for this, but I do know of a church, and a counselor, who have proved invaluable in helping me. And so, last Saturday, I sat down with my father and had the first real conversation I’d had with him in more than thirty years. We talked about the past, about the big, fanged monster, and I called it by name, and didn’t flinch, and spoke from a place of brokenness, because that is who and what I am. I spoke not to blame, but because I wanted to embrace suffering, to tell him that all of that pain and remorse can be healed, and that it hurts like hell but that it’s worth it.

And he talked. It was like the floodgates were opened. It wasn’t magical. Nothing can restore the past that is gone. But at least it was honest, and he talked about remorse, and he apologized, and I talked about forgiveness, and I hugged him for the first time in decades and didn’t feel like I was embracing raw sewage. Why is it that I can readily believe that some unknown, anonymous kid in Cambodia is of infinite worth, while I can’t believe that my parents are worth the time of day? But I at least caught a glimpse of the truth. Even him, Lord. Please redeem him.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go to Cambodia. Maybe I will. But I do know that last weekend I went to a place that I had never gone. It was a risky journey, one worth mentioning and commemorating. For those of you who are praying types, please pray that I’ll make the return trip, and that I’ll find it in my heart to embrace suffering.


Jeff Cannell said...

thanks andy
thanks god

danthress said...

Praise God. I've been really hoping for this post, and now it's here. Awesome.

John McCollum said...


Thanks for posting this. Very challenging, very encouraging, very sad -- all at once. I'm glad you're my friend.

teddy dellesky said...

thanks andy. this gives me hope that i may have the courage and fortitude to deal with my own familial shrapnel one day

Karen said...

andy, i am so proud of you for having the courage to do this! WOW. this is huge. it really is. thank you jesus.

Anonymous said...

You and I come from different religious backgrounds, but your post was universal. I applaud your courage to face and then share your own personal challenges. To me, facing ourselves and our individual family situations is the first step toward fixing the ills of our communities, country and world.

If I am not for myself, who is for me?
And if I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
-- Rabbi Hillel

Thank you.

chelsea said...

chris and i were talking about your post in the car tonight and i was suddenly overcome with emotion and found myself crying. we talked about the wisdom in realizing that our call to "engage suffering" is so multi-faceted... including engaging the suffering we have experienced ourselves. i also spoke about how much your presence in our church means to me... your vulnerability, authenticity and life experience are deeply appreciated. thank you for letting us all into your journey a little.

e said...

yeah. what they said.

this whole suffering thing is really messy. shouldering the burdens of others means you get slobbered on from time to time. i'd always expected that God would somehow repay me for doing some shouldering. then i got disappointed waiting for the repayment and so i stopped shouldering, stopped carrying others' burdens. but they're always there, aren't they? the burdens, the scars, the cracks in the jars of clay...we can't get around them even if we close our eyes....

i'm glad that even if the dam didn't break with your dad that it was opened for a little while. this must be some degree of "repayment."

Andy Whitman said...

Thank you all for your gracious and encouraging comments. Betsey, thank you in particular for sharing what you shared. I know you understand all too well the nature of suffering, and I wish fervently that you didn't have to undergo the pain I'm sure you've experienced. Much love to you and your family.

Anonymous said...

Very powerful, Andy. I'm not sure that I could or would have done what you just did, and it's too late for me, anyway.