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God suffers with us

June 5, 2016

Bíblia - Elias revivendo o filho da viúva

A reflection for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings are 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-19 and Luke 7:11-17.

Like many of you, I pray for people every day. There are many kinds of prayers; prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of forgiveness, prayers of praise and adoration, but for me the easiest prayers are the intentions, prayers for others. I pray for all kinds of things: for people who are struggling with addition or with infertility. For people who suffer because of abuse; people who are un-employed or under-employed. I pray for marriages that are struggling and for couples preparing for marriage; I pray for pregnant mothers and for those struggling with unwanted or un-planned pregnancies. But mostly, I pray for people who are sick. I pray for people going into surgery or people with chronic illnesses. Perhaps the majority of my prayers are for people who are terminally ill. And many of them are children. I pray for people who ask me to pray for them and I pray for people who don’t ask me to pray for them. Sometimes I don’t even know who I’m praying for. Sometimes I’ll get an email or a message through Facebook asking for prayers for someone – Sometimes the person asking for prayers don’t even know the person. They’re just passing it on. Sometimes I pray for people for years without knowing who they are, where they are or how they’re doing.

Once, a friend asked me to pray for a little girl at Sick Kids. She had some type of cancer. Her name was Grace. About 6 months later I happened to see my friend and remembered to ask him about Grace, “Oh, she died about 3 months ago.” It’s very sad when that happens. But it happens. I also prayed for a little girl in Venezuela. I heard about her when I was there; I think she had leukemia. No one asked me to pray for her, I just heard about her and decided to pray. About a year later I got around to emailing a friend in Venezuela who goes to her parish. Turns out she was doing well. She was home and hadn’t been sick for months. Her name is Milagros. It’s a very common name in Spanish; it means “miracles.”

But I really struggle with this. You can have the parents of two different kids in the hospital, praying in the same chapel for their sick child and one gets to go home and the other doesn’t. How is that? Does God care for some people more than for others? Does God not listen to some people’s prayers? Does He only respond to some prayers? Was He out of the office that one time when that one person was praying? Or maybe God just wants some children to go to Heaven sooner than others? It’s a mystery. And I struggle with it. But what’s not a mystery is that God doesn’t usually take away our suffering. Instead, God suffers with us. God suffers for us.

I’ve been doing a lot of work over the last couple of months, working on projects, doing interviews, writing articles and doing presentations on end-of-life issues, because, as you already know (you should) as of June 6, 2016, it will no longer be a criminal offense in Canada to assist someone in dying, with some restrictions. One of them is that the person has to be suffering and that suffering has to be grievous and irremediable. That’s why the government is working hard to write a new law to legislate Medically Assisted Dying to protect the people suffering and the medical professionals who will be asked to provide these “services”.

The law says that suffering is bad. The law says that we should do everything we can to eliminate suffering even if it means killing the person who is suffering. The Catholic Church says that suffering has meaning. I don’t completely understand it but that’s why God doesn’t take away our suffering: because it has meaning; it is redemptive.

I used to think that there was no way Jesus could have healed everyone he met. But if you look at the Gospels, Jesus heals everyone he meets. I guess maybe no one is telling the stories of the people Jesus didn’t heal – but at least, according to the Gospels, He healed everyone. Jesus is constantly helping people who are suffering. He listens to them, cares for them, comforts them and nourishes them. Today, He really goes out of his way to help this widow whose son has died. We’ve all heard of Lazarus and of the daughter of Jairus, but have you heard of the son of the widow of Nain? She doesn’t ask for help; she doesn’t ask to have her son raised from the dead. She doesn’t say anything. But Jesus looks at her with pity and is moved. That’s what God does for us. Jesus tells her not to weep. That’s what God tells us. Jesus then raises her son and “gives the boy to his mother.” We never hear about this resurrection story because it’s not about the dead son who’s brought back to life; it’s about the Mother who’s raised up from that place of despair, of doubt, of fear of sorrow, of darkness and of anger.

The same thing happens in the reading from 1 Kings. Here we have another widow whose son dies. We’ve heard of this widow before. Jesus actually mentions her during his first sermon in Nazareth when he says that a prophet is not accepted in his own hometown. He says, “There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon.” (Luke 4:26) She was not a Jew. If you read the full story you will know that there was a drought and Elijah was in the wilderness and God sends him to Sidon, to Zarephath to this widow who’s been identified (by God) to provide for him. Elijah goes and finds her and asks for food, ‘cause he’s starving. She says, “Food??! I have no food. All I have is this little flour and this little oil and I was just about to bake our last cake for me and my son so we can eat it and then we die.” ‘Cause there was a drought and no food. Elijah asks her to please, before she does that, bake a cake for him. She does and miraculously that little flour and oil end up lasting them a whole year. Elijah stays with her for three years. During that time, at some point her son falls ill and dies. That’s today’s first reading. And she does plead and she complains. The widow of Nain doesn’t say anything; this widow does. And Elijah takes the boy and pleads like many of us never have; he stretches himself over the boy’s body and three times begs God, “this woman has been so good to me and this is how you repay her kindness? By killing her son?” God listens to the prayer and the boy is restored to life and Elijah, “gives the boy to his mother.” It’s not about the dead boy brought to life; it’s about the mother. She’s raised up from that place of darkness, of bitterness, of anger, of doubt, of sorrow, of fear and despair. That’s why we can sing the Psalm today, “I will praise you, Lord, for you have raised me up!” Not from my suffering, but from my fear, my sorrow, my doubt and my despair.

That’s also why we can have this reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians sandwiched in between these two “resurrection” stories. Paul was not raised from the dead…. well, he was, in a way. He was raised from a place of anger, of fear, of bitterness, of hatred, of despair…. ‘cause Paul was not in a good place when he was persecuting Christians. And he says that “God had mercy on me and revealed to me his son, Jesus Christ.” That’s the conversion. That’s the resurrection.

God doesn’t always take away our suffering because it’s that very suffering that leads us to God. We don’t know how the widow of Nain or how her son react, but we do know how the crowd reacts. They say that a “great prophet has arisen among us” and “God has visited his people.” They recognize God. That’s how the widow of Zarephath also reacts. She says to Elijah, “I know now that you are a man of God.”

And if God does this for us, then we are to also do it to each other. There’s a great saying that says, “Don’t ask God to feed someone if you have food to share.” You feed them. Maybe you are the answer to that person’s prayers. You all know people who are suffering. Some of you are suffering. You know well (maybe even better than I do) that we may not be able to take away people’s suffering, but we can walk with them, hold them, cry with them, suffer with them. That’s the meaning of the word “compassion.” Con+passion = to suffer with. That’s how we deal with suffering, we respond with love (not with medically assisted dying).

And it all begins with the Eucharist. We come to Mass to receive God, the author of life, the healer of every ill, so we can be nourished and so He can take away our fear, our sorrow, our despair and our doubt and so we can go and do the same for others. That way we can all sing, “I will praise you, Lord, for you have raised me up.” But that doesn’t mean that you stop praying. Also pray. Pray for others and for yourself. But don’t pray that God takes away your suffering. Pray instead that God takes away your fear, your sorrow, your despair and your doubt. Then you will be filled with faith, hope and love and you will be able to suffer in joy.

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From → English, Reflections

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