“Skillfully Navigating all the Pain in the World”
II Corinthians 1:3-14
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 13, 2017
University Baptist Church
I love this grab bag series. I’ve gotten to preach on the daughters of Zelophehad and the boiling pot in Ezekiel 24. None of which make the top 100 of Biblical stories, let alone trivia answers. Last Sunday, Char Follett picked out the following topic from the grab bag: “I would like to hear a sermon about skillfully navigating all the pain in this world.” I imagine the author wants this in 20 minutes or less. Me thinkest the inquisitor overestimateth the preacher.
Couldn’t they have written: skillfully navigating some of the pain in the world? Or how about skillfully navigating all of the pain on my block? How about poorly navigating some of the pain on my block? I could do that one.
When I look at the current pain in the world, I get a case of whiplash. Should we focus on the Nuclear posturing between North Korea and the Trump Administration, or shall we look at the alt-right march at the University of Virginia, complete with their torches and stiff- armed salutes, looking very much like a KKK rally and even terrorists as they ran a car through the peaceful protestors.
How do we skillfully navigate all of this pain, if we haven’t dealt with some real pain in our lives? Sometimes an incident like this happens and it triggers in us the residual pain from a bygone abuse that still lingers in our psyches. And then we are not dealing with just this incident, but the incidents that are in our very selves. They mar how we see the world, or inform the way we see the world.
How do we skillfully navigate all the pain in the world? We don’t have to address all the pain in the world. Some pain is others’ pain and it’s not ours. We have a part in another’s pain sometimes without meaning to. Some of us are a pain, especially when we are inflicting pain. There is a lot of pain in Charlottesville and there is a lot of pain in the Twin Cities. The fact that it shocks us is part of the problem.
So how do we navigate it all? Navigate is actually a good word. Sometimes it means steering around some pain. Sometimes it means going straight toward a wave. Boaters will say that sometimes that’s the best way to not get turned over.
How do we navigate the pain without being a pain? Part of skillfully navigating is figuring out what you have control over and what you don’t have control over. Some might argue that children in painful situations don’t have a choice. That might be true. So we as adults need to help make vulnerable folks safer and less fraught with pain. That’s the role of the church and the larger moral community.
Pastors are especially susceptible to the tendency or desire to address all the pain in the world if not the congregation. It can wear on you. One colleague told me once, that Jesus already died for the church and the world; that means that you don’t have to.
That’s a comforting theology. The problem is that when we do feel pain, some of us feel like our faith is not strong enough to withstand it. Which makes us feel even worse.
The apostle Paul had the problem that all followers of Jesus had and have. It’s the problem of holding all of the pain in the world and supposedly their answers. Try as we might, none of us are Jesus. So, we offer what we can, flaws and all. What we have to offer are our feeble bodies, our fallible minds and our sometimes broken hearts. And yet we resist the temptation to say there is no answer, there is no salve for our souls. Instead, we offer what little pearls of wisdom we might have. I encourage you to hold fast to what is helpful, and if something is not, please let it fall gently away.
And so it is with all this in mind that I enter this sermon.
The scripture reading for this morning is somehow appropriate. Paul speaks about the affliction he and his community felt in Asia. He says “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.” I think he means that the suffering was so great that they considered that death might very well give them the relief they didn’t get in this life. They were in the ash heap. The despairing place. The place where it didn’t seem that it could get any worse.
Folks in recovery say that they didn’t get better until they had bottomed out. That they had lost everything. That they realized that they could no longer face the world alone; that only a power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity. That’s what Paul is describing. And then he says that it was there in their despair that they found God. He said that God rescued him and his compatriots from deadly peril and continues to rescue them. He also says that God continues to rescue them by the work of others in prayer. And so we pray fervently for our country and those in particular pain. And the prayer spurs us to action that will navigate through the storms of pain.
These escapades of hate that pervade our country and even our world are wake-up calls. They touch the pain in the world and they bring out the worst in people but also the best. We don’t expect our president to say reconciling things. We’re beyond that. But we do expect other elected officials to find their voices. We expect people of faith to stand up to bigotry and racism and say, “Not in our name, not in our community. Not on our watch.” Maybe that needs to be our slogan from now on.
Think of the black mother who fears for the life of her child. Having had the talk about when to walk out of the house. How to address a white person, even if they are being mean to you. Recognizing that your actions reflect not only on yourself but your whole race. Now imagine that person, that church-going person witnesses her son beaten by a swastika-wielding white-skinned thug. And then that person is told to love the perpetrator. Or to forgive him. You might be able to do that with a whole lot of time and a whole lot of prayer and a whole lot of repentance on the perpetrator’s part. How do you skillfully navigate the pain when it is all around you? How do you skillfully navigate the pain when it comes in waves and it seems like there is no relief in sight?
Ken Sehested, former director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship and one of the pastors of Circle of Mercy Church in Asheville, NC wrote late last night about his trip to South Africa in 1989 during the last throes of Apartheid. Here’s a little of what he wrote given yesterday’s events:
I discovered that the word “reconciliation,” a pivotal word to my own sense of purpose, was an ugly, discredited word to those struggling for justice in South Africa. What I discovered was that “reconciliation” was among the key words used by those supporting apartheid, and what is meant was: Reconciliation happens when you get accustomed to the fact that we are on top and you are on the bottom.”
These memories came streaming back today as I watched the savage news from the “Unite the Right” white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville—but especially as President Trump spoke during his New Jersey golf resort news conference.
The tripe pouring from his puckered lips, deploring the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides”—and then, in anticipation of his critics, assured the nation that “this has been going on for a long time”—stirred volatile emotions.
He used the occasion to recite how great his presidency has been. He did not mention white supremacists, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other extremist groups’ convergence (some with weapons, including semi-automatic rifles) in Charlottesville. His commentary was pure cockamamie. Fatuous. Clueless. Asinine. Like a befuddled fire chief, faced with a burning building, saying water is wet.
Even conservative Republicans were critical of the President’s apparent refusal to name the provocateurs in Charlottesville and his hint at there’s nothing to see here folks—been happening for a long time in our country.
In the latter case, he is right. As that prophetic line from an adrienne maree brown poem puts it: “Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered.” The poet’s counsel in light of these things would be mine as well:
“We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
The fact that we are shocked about today’s news from Emancipation Park is part of our problem.
I wonder while we are focusing on this pain, what behind the scenes sleight of hand might cause another set of rights to be abolished.
As you know, our daughter Becca leaves for school at University of Wisconsin, River Falls three weeks from yesterday. She wants to be part of the democratic process in her new state, but the voter ID laws make it very hard for students to vote. You need to go to the DMV to get a “free” voter ID if you bring with you an original birth certificate and proof of residence. But here’s what the statute says about students: “University and college students may use their student photo ID in conjunction with a fee payment receipt that contains the student’s residential address dated no earlier than nine months before the election.”
Becca didn’t know her campus address last February. There are probably other ways to get her registered, but the hurdles are immense, leaving too many good people disenfranchised.
The work of the church is to open up the eyes of people to the heart of God. In the heart of God is all the pain in the world, and all the healing in the world. In the heart of God, there is a path through this quagmire. In the heart of God is the hope for a reconciled world.
I know because I saw it. I saw it on Tuesday evening when over a thousand of us gathered at the Dar Al Farooq Mosque in Bloomington. Muslim, Christian, Jew, Unitarian, unbelievers all gathered to condemn the act of terrorism that took out the Imam’s office last weekend and tried to scare off the community. The people gathered to say, the Minnesota we believe in does not tolerate such violence. The Minnesota we love supports one another and seeks to reconcile. It was as if we said, “Not in our name, not in our community. Not on our watch.” We ate Middle Eastern food and laughed and prayed with each other, like we were at a family barbeque. That’s how the community comes together.
We are better than this because 800 congregations nationwide and almost 50 in the Twin Cities have decided to offer sanctuary to people who face deportation because of their immigration status. We are willing to stand up to those who would brutally rip apart families, “Not in our name, not in our community. Not on our watch.” We are building a better, more compassionate Minnesota.
We are better because we dare to imagine a world where we are not polarized but come together in community. We need to do something like we did during the marriage amendment campaign. We found common ground on love and freedom. We need to start having creative dialogues across our communities. Maybe talking about how we can live moral lives together. Maybe then we can together say “Not in our name, not in our community. Not on our watch.” And promote a better world, a better more healing narrative.
How do we skillfully navigate all the pain in the world? We don’t. It will make us crazy. What we do is recognize the pain nearby and address it with compassion and mercy.
We take the pieces that we can and when it feels like too much, we get someone else to help us out, to be our companion. To be our wisdom that tempers our rage.
And we pray. We pray for the victims. We pray for our broken world. We pray for skill so we can navigate around the toxic pain that will debilitate us and toward the pain that needs to be exorcised. We say to the forces of evil that would divide us, “Not in our name, not in our community, not on our watch.” Because we follow a God who seeks to build a world as it says in Revelation “where pain and sorrow are no more for the former things have passed away.”
As the poet Maya Angelou wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Where cross the crowded ways of life,
Where sound the cries of clan and race,
Above the noise of selfish strife,
O Christ, we hear your voice of grace.
O Savior from the mountainside,
Make haste to heal these hearts of pain;
Among these restless throngs abide,
O tread the city’s streets again:
Till all shall learn compassion’s might,
And follow where your feet have trod,
Till glorious from your realm of light,
Shall come the city of our God.