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[COMMENT: Marjorie Avery is becoming a very good friend at the Church where I have just (Spring 2006) begun attending. She gave this talk in church during sermon time a few Sundays ago, and agreed to have it posted here.
Her talk is available on audio tape from the Church of the
Blessed Sacrament, 1314 N. Angelina Dr., Placentia, CA 06608 714 528-2995 E. Fox]
Talk given by Marjorie W. Avery,
Blessed Sacrament Episcopal Church, Placentia, CA.
May 7, 2006
Many years ago I worked in a mental hospital. One of the patients I helped care for was a man named William. He was afflicted with hydrocephaly, for which there was no treatment at the time. His little stunted body was about the size of a six year old child and his head was enormous, about half the size of his body. I was told that because of his condition his mind had never developed, and I wondered about that. I wondered if there had been a time in infancy when William lay in his motherís arms and smiled. William, about 25, now seemed unaware of the world around him; he was unresponsive to voices and couldn't see. I thought perhaps I noticed some response to a gentle touch, but Iím not sure. For nearly a quarter of a century he lay in a hospital bed, his every need cared for by others. I was one of his caregivers, and Iíve never forgotten him. Other attendants told me that his mother and father had stopped visiting him years before when he became unresponsive and grew more horribly deformed. Williamís only visitor was a priest who came occasionally and stood quietly by his crib, praying. I often prayed for William, myself. He was a child of God and the child of a family whose grief must have been unimaginable.
At the time I knew William, I was going through a formative period in my life with God. I was struggling to reconcile what I was learning of the love of God with what I was seeing in my daily work in the hospital. I felt the need for a faith that made sense out of what I was seeing. It was more than that old question, ďWhy do bad things happen to good people?Ē I knew that I lived in a world where there were choices to be made, where there was the possibility of people making bad choices, the possibility of things going wrong. I knew that things often did go wrong, because that was the nature of the fallen world. As a child of nine years old I had encountered evil close up and had experienced pain and suffering first hand. It was during World War II when I was living in New York City with my mother and baby brothers. My father was the captain of a destroyer, coming into New York harbor, heading for Brooklyn Navy Yard. Early on the morning of January 3, 1944, the ship exploded and sank, killing my father and most of the men on the ship. I heard the explosion that killed my father; it blew out windows on our street. My fatherís death marked the end of my childhood and the beginning of a period during which our family was uprooted and isolated, we were impoverished, my mother became deeply depressed and for a period of several years was barely able to function. I became what we would call today the victim of ďabuse,Ē of several types.
So when I was working in a mental hospital, the question for me was not ďWhy do bad things happen to good people?Ē I knew they just happened. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. My question became, ďWhat do I do when bad things happen?Ē I believed in a good and loving God, so perhaps the question included ďCan God use these bad things for his purpose?Ē ďIs there something God can teach me through my suffering and the suffering of others?Ē I was impressed by the suffering of Jesus which led to the redemption of the world and the incredible victory over death in his Resurrection. ďWhat of the sufferings I saw daily in the hospital? For Christians, is there something good that can come through suffering, perhaps even through our own suffering?Ē
Itís taken a lifetime finding the answers to these questions. Iím 72 and still learning. Itís taken a lot of personal experiences with suffering, a lot of prayer and searching, a lot of growing toward God, falling off the path and then coming back again. If God hadnít helped me, if his presence hadnít been with me, Iíd never have made it. Years ago I attempted suicide, and it was Godís grace that saved me. Iíve experienced some of those ďsevere mercies,Ē and perhaps you have too, those experiences so excruciatingly painful at the time, when later you can thank God because you can see that he was with you through your pain, and in the end you grew closer to him. Itís knowing Godís presence and his goodness that puts a smile on your face and joy in your heart, even when you are hurting. What I hope to share with you is my conviction that itís not so important the things that happen to you in life, whether good or bad, itís what you do with them.
Take a look at how people react to pain and suffering. For over ten years Iíve accompanied my husband, an Episcopal priest, on visits to people in pain in hospitals, homes and nursing centers. Some sufferers close in upon themselves and make pain and all the large and small hurts of their lives their focus of existence. In the case of a particular woman I remember very well, no antidepressant and nothing anyone could say or do would lift her out of her bitter complaints about life. She was sure that God had abandoned her. No prayer, no sacraments, no evidences of caring and love could coax her out of the hell she made for herself and her family.
On the other side have been the saints who grow closer to God and to others in their pain. One such woman was Jackie. She was the mother of twin boys, who contracted a deadly form of cancer while the boys were still very young. Jackie endured several surgeries, numerous treatments and a great deal of pain. Far from being bitter, Jackie continued to the end with a cheerful spirit, caring about others and praying for them. I know she prayed for me. Jackie grew in her life with God, and she was filled with joy. I can remember her smiling face, her gentle voice, her compassion. There are many others I could mention who have experienced pain and grown through it. I think of Vicky, widowed a few years ago. Her friends were concerned for her after her husband died. Theyíd been married for over fifty years. His death was sudden and devastating, but Vicky entered into life with a new intensity, looking for ways to learn and grow closer to God and others. Iíve gotten to know Vicky through our weekly bible study and prayer group. She is one who loves and gives and smiles a lot. I asked her why she was happy, and she said that God has work for her to do. Recently she was recognized by the Senior Center where she volunteers numerous hours. One of the greatest remedies for pain is service to others. Prayers for others, a note or phone call to someone who is having a hard time will help you to realize that through carrying anotherís burden you will be strengthened.
There are others in our parish that fit this mold, people suffering in a variety of ways. Yet we see them giving selflessly of their time and talents to others and seldom mentioning their own pain. For the most part, these are people who are choosing to reach out to God and others. They know the love of God, and their smiling faces reflect that love. For them, pain has not brought defeat. It may seem strange, but for some, a byproduct of pain has been joy.
My own experience with pain is this: I live with chronic pain caused by a condition I had never heard of - peripheral neuropathy. Iíve probably had it in a mild form for a long time, but it was getting worse and finally diagnosed about 2 1/2 years ago. Itís a strange condition, producing nerve pain in the arms and legs, in my case especially my feet. For some itís a minor inconvenience; for others it is totally disabling. My neuropathy has gotten progressively more painful, to the point that I sometimes get stabbing pains that are excruciating. There is also a constant numbness and burning sensation that makes standing and walking very painful. Nights are especially bad, and I lie awake a lot. It seems that there are a lot of things that can cause neuropathy, and in the process of trying to determine the source, doctors discovered that I have a brain tumor. They found that about two years ago. I have a wonderful doctor, a brain surgeon, who tells us that this tumor is in a location that makes it impossible to remove completely by surgery. We reviewed the options. Since the tumor did not appear to be malignant at the time, and since there were no treatments that didnít involve high risk, we decided to let the thing take its course. Theyíve been monitoring the tumor and found that it is slow growing, although that could change. So far Iíve been able to live a reasonably satisfying life.
Right now, my major concern is pain. Nerve pain is difficult to control. The most commonly prescribed medications for this condition havenít done me much good and have caused some terrible side effects, which had left me discouraged about the pain problem. My doctor made a recent change in my medication which I hope is going to be a real improvement. I hope it will help me take my mind off the pain and allow me to think more clearly. I want to be able to focus on my prayers, attend church, receive the sacraments and keep up with my bible study group. I need to be involved with others and find ways to continue serving. All these are things that help a person grow closer to God, and they are things I need very much as I deal with pain and look ahead to the end of my earthly life. Even now itís hard for me to get out and about, and it looks like the time is coming when Iíll be bedridden, but I think the grace God is giving me in this time of reprieve will help me face that, if and when it comes.
To be perfectly honest, there are times when my struggle with pain seems overwhelming, and Iíd be a hypocrite if I didnít tell you that. There are times when I feel sorry for myself and whine and complain to my husband and have to remind myself that God is the center of my life, not this pain that threatens to become so self-absorbing. It is the night-time hours that are the best and worse for me. Best, because I use my sleepless night hours for meditation and prayer, worse because the pain is stronger at night. I have come to feel tremendous support during those long night hours. I know that friends pray for me. (Thatís a humbling and beautiful experience to know that others are interceding for you.) And I pray for others in pain. Intercessory prayer seems to unite me to a fellowship of sufferers, close to each other and close to God through prayer. I reach out to them in prayer to say, ďGod loves you; he is with you in your pain.Ē Is it possible that in sharing the burdens of others, our own burdens are lifted? Amazingly, in the time since I received my diagnosis, I have experienced very little depression. Itís as if God has given his angels charge over meÖ. They are bearing me up in their hands, lest I am dashed on the rocks of depression. (Psa 91:11-12 KJV)
During the night hours, Iíve also spent time meditating on the meaning of pain. In this last year, I have received the laying on of hands and anointing for healing, yet the tumor has not gone away and the pain is worsening. Obviously, even the most intense prayers for healing are not always answered in the way we had wished. Saint Paul spoke of something from which he suffered. He wrote: Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ďMy grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.Ē (2 Cor 12:9-10 NIV) Saint Paul recognized that God had some good purpose that could only be achieved through suffering. What could that be?
Iíve wondered about suffering, my own and others, in relation to the Passion of Jesus. The Apostle Peter, in his first Epistle, wrote: ďDear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ Ö. (1 Pet 4:13-14 NIV) Is it possible to discover meaning in our own suffering in the context of the Cross? One day I fell into conversation with a man in a grocery line. The tabloids had a headline with reference to Pope John Paul, who at that time was in failing health and suffering greatly. The whole world knew about it. Evidently, some were supposing that he would resign and live out his pain privately, sparing the sensibilities of a world that has little understanding of suffering. The man I was speaking with asked if I had seen a recent picture of the Pope, standing at the foot of a life sized crucifix, obviously in prayer and very likely in pain. I hadnít seen it, so he took my e-mail address and sent me the picture. What a treasure! Iíd like you to see it. I often study this picture and visualize it in my mind during sleepless nights. Here is a man in pain, publicly embracing the Cross. Not just any man, but the leader of the largest section of the Christian Church, standing in weakness and pain before the Cross of Christ, standing before the eyes of the world. I do believe that in his suffering and death the Pope showed the world the redemptive meaning of pain. ďRejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ Ö.Ē wrote Peter from Rome, shortly before his own crucifixion. ďRejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ Ö.,Ē John Paul seemed to be saying to the world.
The cross. Sometimes at night, when I hurt too much to sleep, I hold on to a little wooden cross that my husband made for me. I spend my time at the foot of the cross, enjoying the presence of God and the fellowship of other Christians, throughout the world, throughout time, who are united with God in prayer. Those are my sweetest hours of prayer, times when I feel very close to God. You see, pain isnít the enemy; the enemy is hopelessness, despair, apartness from God. Think of pain as a choice, the choice to identify with Christ in his Passion. Seen that way, pain brings you closer to God, it is something you can embrace, like the old Pope embraced the cross. This is the good gift that God gives me through pain.
The cross. We Christians always get back to the cross; itís our end but also our beginning. Without the cross and resurrection Jesus was just another bright young man, with some good ideas. Christians know better. We know that God didnít create all that is as just an interesting experiment. He didnít just fold his hands and step back to watch what would happen. He stepped right into the middle of it; he experienced it all. ďWhere is God when I am suffering, when terrible things happen?Ē some will ask. The answer is that he is right here beside us, even here within us. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said: ďI will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.Ē This is why we donít need to be afraid.
But we are afraid sometimes, arenít we? Pain and sorrow are real, and in our lowest moments we may experience depression and a sense of abandonment. Even Jesus experienced that on the cross. I wonít pretend that it is easy, but Jesus promised to be with us to the end, and we need to hold on to that promise. We need to expect his presence, and reach out to him. In my own experience, the dread of meaninglessness is something I deal with. People whose activity becomes increasingly limited sometimes begin to think that their lives are without purpose. My own worst dread is that the day will come when I lie in a nursing home or hospital, as senseless of the world as the young man I knew in a mental hospital, William with hydrocephaly. Itís true, that day may come. Iíve prayed about it; the answer seems to be the visualization of a scene from the gospels where Jesus held the children in his arms. I can feel his arms around me, too. I am Godís child. It doesnít matter if my memory goes and I am unable to take care of myself. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. So, you see, wherever we are in the darkness, we are not lost to God. We are only waiting for the day when God will restore us and bring us home. Like William, our lives can give mute testimony to the love of God. The poet John Milton, having gone blind and no longer able to serve God as he had, wrote these words: ďThey also serve who only stand and wait.Ē In our waiting, in our patient suffering, we are united with the sufferings of Christ; we too can serve.
Finally, itís not so important the things that happen to you in life, whether good or bad, itís what you do with them. The sweet moments of life are made sweeter by sharing with God; the bittersweet moments can actually become moments of joy. The words of scripture and the witness of the lives of saints tell us that Christ is present with us in suffering, but we are not always able to feel his presence. In those most desperate times of darkness, we can only call to him ďLord, I believe; help my unbelief.Ē (Mark 9:24) Sometimes it is all we can do to just close our eyes and ask him to come to us. He is the source of comfort and strength, going with us through those experiences that are so frightening and painful, even through the ultimate terror, the valley of the shadow of death. Because Christ is with us, suffering and death take on new meaning. Christís will for us is perfect joy: a table of plenty, even in the middle of the most painful experiences of life, a cup running over. Plenteousness, security, comfort, goodness and mercy. Finally, eternal life, a dwelling place in the house of the Lord, forever. These are lovely images, but much more than that. When Christ is the center of our being and we live close to him, we have the confident expectation of joy. God is good. He loves his own. Even if memory should fail and we sink into a state of unknowing, we are still his. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. At last Christ will lead us through the narrow gate of death into the joy of eternal life, to share the resurrected life with him. Until then, we live in the arms of God, knowing his presence, his love. That is joy!
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