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Suffering with grace

flowerOne of my favorite spiritual leaders growing up was a priest named Father Jim. I believe he came to our small-town parish in the mid- to late 90s – I remember being about 12 years of age. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was at the time, but mine was the first CCD class where both the boys and the girls were trained to be altar attendants.*

My sister, brother, and I all served at mass dozens of times – probably hundreds if you were to tally up the instances between the three of us. As a child and even as a teenager, I probably didn’t fully appreciate the role I played as an altar attendant. Regardless, I think it was important as a young person for me to understand that a religious community – just like any other community – has jobs that need done and members of that community have a responsibility to fulfill those roles when needed.

About 17 years later, I attended a mass in a different parish – and there was Father Jim. I wish I could remember what the readings had been that day because his sermon afterwards was so inspiring. He was talking about the role of parents – specifically, he talked about Mary and Joseph and how they might have parented Jesus as a child.

With a mischievous grin, Father Jim lamented how it was too bad that Jesus didn’t have a motorbike as a kid. That would have allowed him to whiz all around the countryside and spread his teachings faster and further. It was too bad that Jesus didn’t have more fashionable clothing as a kid, and then maybe he would have garnered more respect. It was too bad that Jesus didn’t get into the right college and get an education at a prestigious institution. It was too bad that Jesus didn’t come from a more wealthy family. With greater means, he could have done so much more.

At this point, my mind was still stuck on the visualization if little-kid Jesus whizzing around Jerusalem on a pocket rocket. I remember Father Jim always had a great love of fun. He spearheaded the organization of group activities for the teenagers in the parish – things like group outings and hayrides. But this is the first time I could recall him being so wildly absurd. And what could be more absurd than supposing that Jesus could have possibly done more for us? With that, Father Jim had captured my full attention.

Father Jim went on to explain that the job parents are tasked with is not to provide the latest and greatest toys and gadgets to their children. Parents are not responsible for fulfilling a child’s every want and whim. The role of a mother and a father is not to write out a blank check to fund the desires and dreams of the next generation. The role of a mother and a father is to serve as an example of living with grace.

“Living with grace” means many things. Living with grace means living within your means and practicing good stewardship over the resources you are blessed with. Living with grace means learning to forgive and having humility to ask for forgiveness when you need it. Living with grace means being honest – even when the truth doesn’t paint you in the most flattering light. Living with grace means living a life of loving service to those around you each and every day.

Living with grace is truly a great challenge, but it leads to a fulfilling and satisfying life. But one of the most challenging aspects of living with grace is acceptance of suffering – and in that regard, we can find a great role model in Jesus.

Now, “learning from your mistakes” is a very different thing from “acceptance of suffering” – though, they can be closely related.

I made some financial mistakes in my early twenties, living beyond my means and using credit to finance the things I thought I deserved. I never would have learned from these mistakes if not for the suffering that ensued when it came time to pay the metaphorical piper. It was both painful and embarrassing to be working at a good job, earning good money, but barely able to make ends meet. There are people in my life who think I am still that person and will never let me live down my mistakes. The fallout from my mistakes still haunts me and probably always will. But it is my suffering that turned my mistakes into lessons I will never forget.

Sometimes we invite suffering into our lives – like I did when I made poor financial choices. But sometimes suffering is put upon us through circumstances beyond our control. Good people get sick. Bad people get out of jail and commit crimes against the innocent. The poor die in gutters while the wealthy brush away death with common and affordable vaccines and antibiotics. Some parents abuse and neglect their children while grieving parents wish they could hold their child just one last time. When faced with so much worldly injustice, it can seem like a cruel joke to say that we are called to “live with grace” and “accept our suffering.”

*****

I need to take a moment here because just writing those things, listing those injustices – it angers me. It saddens me. It baffles me how we can say that there is a loving Creator who would allow so much suffering in this world. So take a deep breath with me, and just think about that for a moment.

*****

You know what is in your heart. And I know what is in mine. There is great love. I love my family. I love my friends. I love beyond words. If we are made in our Creator’s image (Genesis 1:27) then there is also love in our Creator. We cannot force the ones we love to make the best choices. If we use force, that wouldn’t be called love.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.” Corinthians 13:4-7

So when I think about suffering, I try to think about love. I think about the suffering people endure for the love of others. The suffering begins right from the start. Before each of us enters this world, our mothers bore great suffering to deliver us in to it. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with a toddler, you know they often experience frustration as they lack the ability to clearly communicate and change the world around them – anything from a scratchy tag on their shirt to not getting that sugary cereal they want at the grocery store can ignite a tantrum. These little ones’ problems may be relatively small, but they still experience suffering.

Jesus experienced suffering for our benefit – to open the gates of Heaven and secure for us the promise of life everlasting. But not only did Jesus suffer, he suffered with grace. He did not seek out the suffering, even asking if it was within the Father’s will that he be spared from enduring it. Still, even with the Father willing it, Jesus didn’t have to. He knew what was coming and could have left down. But willingly, obediently, and with grace he took up the cross.

Even for the son of G-d, that must have taken great faith on his part – after all, he was fully human. I imagine he had a pretty good idea that this plan would work, but what if it didn’t? Is it worth enduring all that pain? Is it worth putting my mother and my friends through the pain of watching? – I imagine those questions ran through his mind. For Jesus, the mere possibility of winning salvation for us all was worth enduring all those things.

“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:13

Most of us will never have to take it that far – at least not in a literal sense. However, many of us are called to suffer. But even in suffering, we have a choice. We can choose to be angry. We can choose to run from it and hide in denial. We can choose to wallow in self-pity. And all of those choices are valid ones. Sometimes, we need to feel anger, denial, and self-pity for a little while. But we cannot stay in those dark places. We were not made to live in darkness.

Like Jesus, we can choose to accept our suffering. We can choose to bear our cross with obedience and grace. We can learn from the pain. We learn to appreciate what we do have and take joy from the gifts and blessings of others.

Losing my children has been the greatest challenge of my life. Psychology Today has an article that opens as follows:

“One of the greatest traumas imaginable is when parents have to deal with the death of a child. Producing greater stress than dealing with the death of a parent or spouse, a child’s death is especially traumatic because it is often unexpected as well as being in violation of the usual order of things in which the child is expected to bury the parent.”

Not a day goes by I don’t feel their absence on this earth in some way. I might be outside feeling the sun shine upon my face – then I’ll remember that my babies will never experience the warmth of sunlight on their skin. It might happen at church, listening to a sermon on gratitude – and I’ll think why should I be grateful when my children were taken from me too soon? Or perhaps when preparing a meal for my family, knowing I will never have the opportunity to nourish the physical bodies of my children.

This knowledge hurts. It hurts more than I can say. But through the pain of loss, I am able to appreciate more fully the miracle of life. It is estimated that only half of all pregnancies produce a healthy baby. A friend of mine once said that he didn’t see much point in celebrating birthdays because being born is no accomplishment. While it may not be an accomplishment, it is certainly something to celebrate. Each of us could just have easily been a miscarriage. All it would take is one cell dividing improperly, a single nutrient in short supply at a critical moment, a tiny twist in the umbilical cord, and we would not be here. The fact that you were born is nothing short of a miracle.

And when I see small children, I have always felt affected by their aura of adorable. But now, I see so much more. I see hope for the future. I see parents who struggle and strive to do their best. I see the physical manifestation of love all about them. I see a reminder that life does go on, even when it sometimes feels like it shouldn’t.

Some days, I am able to suffer with grace. On other days, I need to feel the anger and the sadness. I try to be gentle with myself on these days in particular. But even through the anger and grief, I often pray that I find a way to continue carrying this cross as best I can.

And I know that if I fall, that’s okay – Jesus fell down too.

*****

*In 1994, Pope John Paul II ended a centuries-old custom of male-only participation in the church’s most sacred ritual. Individual parishes across the world began allowing female attendants as local leadership saw fit. Today, nearly all parishes in the United States allow young women to serve at mass.

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  1. Reblogged this on Just One Take.

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