I used to be religious. When I was a child, I was religious as a matter of course, it was just part of the culture in which I grew up. My parents were missionaries, and the whole point of the entire family was to convert people to the religion. I didn’t know there was really a world outside of that kind of life.
Later I learned about spirituality, and I understood it as the personalization of religion. The way religion was personalized in my childhood was generally in terms of “God loves you personally and will send you to hell if you’re not saved.” That was how I understood the personal nature of divine love.
As I got a bit older, into my twenties, I started looking for ways to understand and really feel this religion that still seemed absolute and incontrovertible. And spirituality seemed like a path toward balance between the rigors and demands of the religion and the weird tickling I had in the back of my brain that seemed to think something was off here.
I spent a couple of years training to be a hospital chaplain. I was probably decent enough at it, as decent as any twenty-something can be when constantly confronted with death. One of the big questions we asked ourselves and each other, and one we were asked often by our supervisors, was “Where is God in this?” The answers were not expected to be simple or politically correct. Usually, the answer I came up with that made the most sense in the middle of a crisis was that God was weeping alongside the bereaved, the broken-hearted, the sick, the dying, and those who cared for them. Hospital chaplaincy took us beyond what medical science or social work or psychology could answer and into questions that were often screamed out in the night as people lost loved ones to all kinds of deaths. It seemed that God had to exist in the pain itself, in the questions themselves.
Later, I have to say I pretty much abandoned the concept of God. I was tired of banging my life into weird shapes in order to conform to some strange image that seemed unrelentingly male, implacably white, and from whom no better could really be expected than from a decent caring human being.
I remember when my state, one of the first to vote on same sex marriage, voted it down because of the Christians from the branch of Christianity I had belonged to all my life. I didn’t know I was a lesbian yet, but I knew that vote made me sick to my stomach.
I remember the first time I walked into a church that had hired a woman pastor. I sat and listened to her sermon with tears streaming down my face. A woman speaking spiritual truth from a pulpit seemed so completely revolutionary that I stayed with that church almost as long as she was the pastor – even though I felt eventually like I wasn’t really any kind of Christian anymore.
In recent years, I’ve felt even more alienated from and angry at the church that taught me such abusive early lessons about the nature of love and the meaning of suffering. I have felt angry that the folks who taught me how to be a hospital chaplain and work in a multi-denominationa/multi-religious context basically said that if we were to continue to be Baptist while doing this work, we were going to have to learn to lie well. That is, we’d have to lie to the church in order to keep a good standing there, so that we could use the name Baptist to work interdenominationally in the hospital. It seemed a particularly clever kind of subversion at one time, but later I realized that the world was so much bigger than that strategy. Why lie, when you could just speak your truth? The reason, quite simply, was that speaking my truth would mean I couldn’t be Baptist, or Christian, anymore.
I remember the exact day I left the Baptist church. It was a cataclysmic experience and one I don’t care to repeat, either in form or substance. It was sudden and painful and I literally had an out of body experience as I realized this was all ending, my entire world was coming to an end. It took me years to realize that this world was so small that it mainly only mattered to the people who were trying so hard, by fear, to keep it contained.
In recent days, though, the question from my post title has been coming back into my mind. It’s actually the title of a book by an evangelical (read fundamentalist) Christian writer, and it was considered something of a radical expression of the evangelical Christian faith when it first came out, a statement of the reality of suffering in the lives of the faithful.
I’m not really interested in reading the book – and it came out when I was at an age when I wouldn’t have been interested in reading it, I was still into Nancy Drew mysteries back then. But as I feel the ebb and flow of my inner questions and their accompanying turmoil, and as I experience the questions and pain and longing and suffering of my own life and – second-hand – of folks around me, I wonder.
Maybe it’s an old tape playing. I’m not inclined to revisit the whole God question. But I wonder about some kind of universality in suffering as well as in happiness. I wonder if, when we suffer, even internally, and even in ways that might not feel like suffering to another person, we join in a larger energy of suffering that extends throughout and beyond space and time. I’m pretty committed to the belief that when we feel peace, joy, happiness, or one of the lighter-feeling emotions, that we are uniting with a larger energy through those feelings. Why not, then, suffering?
I mean, I know I tend to take my suffering and judge myself for it. I want to stop it in its tracks, because I feel it is shameful and unworthy and a useless cycle of pain. And yet, when I see the suffering of others, I tend to respond in a slightly different way. I know there is a theory that how I respond to myself is how I will respond to others – but I think that perhaps that’s only half the story. I think that perhaps I’m able to offer grace to another’s suffering, whereas my own receives only judgment.
So where is “god” or universality when it hurts? I think, after all these years and all these changes, that I’m coming back to the same answer I used to experience in ER and ICU family rooms as families wept and wailed and even shrieked out their pain. God is in the depth of the pain. Does this mean there is actual power in the pain itself? Or in its full expression? Perhaps the cycle of suffering ends by allowing it room to be.
I’ve been thinking of this in terms of what I so often do – I want to give to others, so I hide what hurts inside me in order to appear ready to give, rather than too wounded to share. But what if need, what if pain, what if suffering, are gifts worthy of sharing? I’m not suggesting, for example, that a proper response to a loved one’s suffering would be to recount one’s own story of suffering – that rarely, it seems to me, helps anyone. But what if, while hearing another’s pain, I could receive both it and my own in full measure? What if there were no such thing as too much? Surely there is a point where it becomes too much. But I think I guard against there being too much by closing my heart to my own pain as I tend to another’s shared pain. And I think I could, possibly, hold space for my own and others’ suffering. And I think that perhaps the divine exists in the space where suffering is, and is without judgment. And maybe, maybe, maybe, hope can rise because cries of despair have already been given room to rise.
It’s a big old world out there. And it can be a big old painful world inside me, and inside the folks I love. And maybe there is a divine connection, a strength, that comes from seeing my own suffering, and seeing your suffering, and simply giving it room to be, to share, to connect, to cry, to breathe.
I used to think, when I’d listen to folks weeping profoundly at the death of their loved ones, that I was listening to God cry. Maybe it’s time to bring back a bit of that belief. If I cry, if you suffer, it is a divine act to express and to share it. We don’t want suffering to make up so much of our lives. And surely there are other remedies – personal growth, distraction, humor, social change, economic revolution. But maybe there’s no difference between me and you and the divine and suffering and joy. Maybe if I treat me, and you, and our suffering, and our joy, as powerful and prophetic and sweet and strong; maybe if giving my need, accepting your need, is an exchange of love and caring; maybe then together we’ll find an inarticulate answer to an awkward and outdated, but still somehow very compelling, question.