2 Corinthians 1:1-11 has always been such a meaningful verse to me in considering our experiences of suffering and pain. If there is one part of human existence that is certain, it is that we will suffer. This is why such old bluegrass and Gospel hymns as I remember my parents and grandparents sitting and listening to as a child have an undercurrent of sadness, struggle, and angst event when joy and celebration is the theme of the song. In life, pain and heartache are what we may not hope to flee from, for they are an undercurrent of reality.
The Buddhists have a beautiful image of this truth in the Lotus. Buddhist authors I’ve read say that a part of the significance of the lotus is that it teaches them that to accept the beautiful flower that buds and grows to full blossom in a lotus plant requires also accepting as natural, a part of the lotus’ life, that do not seem as beautiful. It includes accepting the dirt that holds it in place, the rotting decayed materials used as fertilizer. It even includes accepting it will wilt at some point, for the passing nature of flowers adds to their beauty when in bloom and adds to their preciousness. Learning to accept both the pleasant and the painful as part of life is hard at first, but when one does it enables one to be fully present in each experience, in each moment. It enables you to appreciate the fullness and depth of your life in ways you cannot otherwise, and in fact changes your relationship even with the painful parts of your journey as they can become teachers readying you for the beautiful. And from them, in them, you can also begin to experience lotuses of beauty blossoming and growing.
2 Corinthians 1 says something similar. It does not tell us why we suffer, but acknowledges our many sufferings as a part and parcel of human life, something that all will share in and cannot be avoided. It encourages to accept suffering as something that is part of our existence, looking for lessons it can teach. Perhaps the greatest gift of suffering is the experience of comfort and consolation which God gives. This can come through mystical experiences in prayer. It can come through the feeling of being carried one gets through the practice of ritual, prayer, mindfulness, at the heart of one’s faith; or for some an experience of spiritual awakening in which God’s presence is felt near. It can be experienced through God working through the hands of others – friends and family who are there for you, helpful nurses, social workers, chaplains who stand with you. It can come in the compassion expressed by a pet who nuzzles up to you in bed, giving you wet kisses that ease your pain. The experience of consolation is so beautiful and life-giving.
I have seen people discover beauty in such pain. It is one of the joys in my work as a chaplain, seeing how love, family, friendship, and spirituality are re-kindled in the face of loss, suffering, and pain. I do not know and cannot understand the answer to the question of “why” so many whom I support as a chaplain ask. That is one they must face, confront, and find peace with in their souls. But I do know that I am amazed at the depth, compassion, love, peace, and friendship that emerge as God consoles them even when they do not have the language to call this One who embraces them in their pain Creator. Witnessing such life break forth in the midst of disease and death, hope break forth in despair, and love break forth in the midst of sadness in concrete ways in the lives of others is a part of what I love about work as a chaplain. Its why I rise with joy to the work of accompanying others into these liminal spaces at the edges of life and death, healing and sickness, which are the spaces in which I am called to serve.
2 Corinthians suggests our experience of being so consoled is not just for us alone, but is a type of fertilizer laid so that more beauty like lotuses can blossom into the world through us. I see this, too, in my work as a chaplain. So many people enter hospice as family members needing support as their loved ones suffer through illness and death, yet return later as volunteers. These volunteers are quick to share their stories of how others consoled them, acting as the ones who helped love, hope, encouragement, friendship, and strength emerge in their darkest moments. They were consoled, and so they console. Whether they know it or not, they are living out this beautiful passage, becoming vessels of healing through whom God can continue the work of comfort.
I see it also beyond my work as a chaplain. As a pastor so often the people doing the most good in the church & community did so out of experience of brokenness in which healing or comfort came unexpected. I think of a soldier nearly broken by addiction who found recovery through a 12 step program and became a voice for recovery in the church, and now is a veteran working to become an addiction counselor.
I think of many in churches I have served who were rejected by family and church for their sexuality or gender identity who found in their own soul a feeling that God did not abandon them, but loved and embraced them. Experiencing that led them to reach out to hurting LGBT people who experienced rejection, sharing their consolation, comfort, and acceptance with them.
I think of my wife who experienced horrible bullying as a teenager with a disability over her disability and ways it made her not fit the form, and later too about her sexuality, who found consolation in God, in friends, and in mentors in her life. She now reaches back, out of this experience, to comfort those who are so bullied through volunteer work with an organization called Operation Bullyhorn and also though her work as a minister.
All of these examples remind me of the beautiful ways when we accept our suffering as a part of life, we can find God granting consolation and comfort to us unexpectedly. I am reminded to as we change our relationship to our experience of pain, how that consolation can begin to spill out into us becoming those channels of comfort, consolation, love & peace to others.
May it be so.