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.