The Prophet's Suffering
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
21 October 2007
I preached my first sermon on August 21, 1988 at the age of fourteen.
In June I had been asked to preach for our upcoming youth Sunday. Pretty quickly I figured out which passage I was going to use. I can't really remember why I settled on it so quickly and easily. I don't even think it was my favourite passage at the time. Maybe I had just read it recently in my normal bible reading and it had stuck with me?
The passage was Isaiah 54:11-17. Here are some excerpts:
O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires . . . In righteousness shalt thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear: and from terror; for it shall not come near thee. Behold, they shall surely gather together, but not by me: whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake . . . No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD.
Of course, I look at it now and realize that this passage is perfect for a teenager who feels like something of an outsider from the rest of his world. At the time I thought my difference was explained by my Christian piety, so, of course, I would preach a sermon about Christians being different from the rest of the world.
The title of the sermon was "A Christian's Heritage as a Servant of the Lord." There were three main sections: Christians are set apart, Christians' growth in God, and trial and temptations. The basic point was that we suffered trials and temptations because of our difference, but if we were "established in righteousness" and obeyed God, then God would protect us.
I rehearsed that sermon for months. Seriously. I would run through it over and over again at home. And Mom would take me up to the church to run through it there when no one else was around. I've never since rehearsed a sermon quite like that.
With all that content and all that rehearsal the sermon only took sixteen minutes! Nowadays that seems like a good length of sermon to me. But in the churches of my upbringing, sermons were often a full thirty minutes, so sixteen minutes was considered quite short.
The week after I preached that first sermon Kelly Phillips died. Kelly had been a member of our youth group and had recently graduated and was in college. She was a very active and important leader in our church youth group in my early teen years. Kelly was someone we had all looked up to.
As a teenager she was diagnosed with some form of cancer; I forget the details. She battled her illness with great courage, and we prayed for her earnestly. After everything I'd been taught about God and the power of prayer, I firmly believed that if we prayed hard enough and had enough faith that Kelly would be healed and that this miracle would be a great sign that would lead to revival in our community.
But it was not to be. She died on August 25, 1988 and her funeral was on Sunday afternoon, August 28. The church was packed. As you can imagine, it was a very emotional service. To this day I can't hear Michael W. Smith's "Friends," which was played at her funeral, without thinking of Kelly and getting a little sad. I remember how I came out of the church bawling and grabbed my youth minister, Jeff Payne, and cried and cried in his arms.
Kelly's death struck a great and lasting blow to my faith as received up until that time. I came to realize that much which I had been taught was simply not true. If it had been true, then Kelly wouldn't have died. I think I was scared of the full implications of this realization.
Over the years that followed I was in spiritual crisis, though hardly anyone knew it. I doubted seriously whether I was really a Christian, whether I was saved. I wondered if I had faith or not. I wondered if I was going to hell or not. The root of those years of spiritual crisis was the confusing sexuality that was awakening within me, something I didn't understand or know how to deal with. During those years of spiritual crisis I wondered over and over again whether the crisis itself was my fault, whether the doubts that arose after the deaths of Kelly, my grandparents, my father, and other early crises in my life were really the result of my own lack of faith and my deeply hidden sin.
From the moment of Kelly Phillips' death, prayer, as I had understood it, was not quite the same. For years I had prayed earnestly for long periods each day. But after the prayers I and many others had prayed for Kelly didn't come true, I found it almost impossible to keep praying.
A few years later after other, more significant deaths had occurred in my life, someone at church during a fellowship time in the Fellowship Hall said something to me about my faith in spite of the deaths. I told them that Kelly's death had struck a more difficult blow to my faith than those of my grandparents and my father. I remember that the person didn't know how to respond.
But what I know now is that those years of spiritual crisis were really a blessing to me. The suffering in my life meant that I wrestled with doubt. Death and my own awakening sexuality cast everything I had been raised to believe into doubt. The wrestling with doubt, the suffering that it entailed, the nights of darkness, fear, and despair, all were part of a shaping of my life. I was opening up. Opening up to a process that would last many years. There were many years of education ahead in order to learn how to refashion Christian theology around my doubts. And it would be many years before I personally mustered the courage and integrity to resolve the questions of my sexuality.
Those journeys of claiming a new identity were not easy, but they were wonderful, sublime even. I never would have taken those journeys had I not walked through the valley of the shadow of death, had I not encountered a dark night of the soul.
The Book of Jeremiah reminds us that an essential element of our spiritual journey is the moments in which we wrestle with the darkness, with the shadow side. When we feel that we are in the depths crying out to God or anyone for help.
Just a couple of months ago, as I was preparing for this sermon series, the private letters of Mother Theresa came to light. They have caused quite a stir. In these letters that Theresa wrote to her spiritual advisors, it is revealed that throughout her fifty years of ministry, when she was helping the poorest of the poor that she felt abandoned by God. This woman who received the Nobel Peace Prize, who is viewed as one of the most faithful witnesses to Christianity in our history, spent most of her life doubting God.
In the early days of the Missionaries of Charity, when they were first achieving success in ministry, fulfilling the visions that God had given to Theresa, she entered into what she called a "terrible darkness" and a "deep loneliness." As her ministry grew and grew, her own darkness become more severe. She wrote, "What contradiction there is in my soul. The pain within is so great." Her private turmoil was unknown to most, though she reached out for help again and again to her superiors and spiritual directors. It took them some time to realize how deep her despair really was.
Ten years into this spiritual crisis, in July 1959 she wrote,
In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of your love – and now become as the most hated one – the one You have thrown away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. – Alone. The darkness is so dark – and I am alone. – Unwanted, forsaken. – The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. – Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. – My God – how painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. – I have no faith. . . . If there be God, -- please forgive me. . . . I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
Her pain grew deeper. In September 1959 she wrote,
They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God . . . In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss – of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not really existing (Jesus, please forgive my blasphemies – I have been told to write everything). . . words pass through my lips – and I long with a deep longing to believe in them. – What do I labour for? If there be no God . . . then Jesus – You also are not true . . . there is no hope.
As you read through this book of letters, entitled Come Be My Light, you encounter the paradox of the Christian struggle with faith and with doubt. On one hand she says that she cannot pray any longer, while confessing that she actually still prays for hours and hours. She is searching earnestly to encounter God, but also she feels God's absence. The doubt doesn't make her abandon her search, instead she searches more diligently. She wonders whether her suffering is a necessary part of her ministry, whether God is leading her into the depths so that she can better minister to those who are suffering in the world.
One of her confessors, Father Neusner, felt that Mother Theresa's darkness was itself the testimony of how great God was with her. He wrote,
The sure sign of God's hidden presence in this darkness is the thirst for God, the craving
for at least a ray of His light. No one can long for God unless God is present in her heart.
Father Neusner told Theresa that she was experiencing the "dark night of the soul," that all mystics had encountered. Though he testified that her experience was deeper and longer than any he knew of. He assured her that it did not come upon her because of her own fault, but was actually her experience of the pain and suffering of God. That she was being allowed to experience the same sort of pain that Jesus had felt. That God was allowing her to share in God's own pain.
Ultimately, through her work with Father Neusner, Mother Theresa came to embrace the darkness within. She wrote in 1961,
For the first time in this 11 years – I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus' darkness & pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it as a "spiritual side of 'your work'" . . . Today really I felt a deep joy.
Though she may have learned how to cope with her darkness and the absence of God in her life, her letters reveal that the darkness never went away. Until the end of her life in 1997 she was still writing about her "excruciating night" and her "spiritual dryness."
The Time magazine article written by David Van Biema about these letters is filled with astonishment and respect. Van Biema writes,
However formidable her efforts on Christ's behalf, it is even more astounding to realize that she achieved them when he was not available to her – a bit like a person who believes she can't walk winning the Olympic 100 meters.
And he draws an implication for what her suffering could mean to other people
if she could carry on for a half-century without God in her head or heart, then perhaps people not quite as saintly can cope with less extreme versions of the same problem.
Ministry entails suffering. Why is that? Because ministry is ultimately about compassion. It is about caring for other people. And you can't care for other people without taking on the burden of suffering with them.
As a pastor I can testify to the fact that I "share your pain." Sometimes quite literally. Sometimes the troubles you are going through keep me up at night too. You can ask Michael. There have been times I have asked him to hold me as I cried. And I wasn't crying about some pain of my own. I was crying because of some pain that one of you shared.
We teach that all of us in the church are ministers. Part of being a minister is that you will internalize the suffering of others. And sometimes that means you are lonely and anxious and uncertain.
Mother Theresa's letters reveal that doubt and despair are part of the spiritual life. In fact, they might be essential parts of the spiritual life. When we feel the painful absence of God, maybe it is actually God leading us to new depths of spiritual insight. Maybe it is God shaping us for our ministry to the world.
I know that many of you have experienced or are experiencing deep pain in your life. Sometimes you feel lonely and abandoned by God, the church, or other people. These are legitimate and significant parts of your life. They are not to be justified or moralized away. But they can be opportunities for great spiritual growth. I'm not saying that God purposely sends them your way to teach you some lesson. Hear me, I'm not saying that.
But they can be opportunities for us to learn new things about ourselves. To learn new things about relationships with other people. To go deeper in our spiritual journey.
And some of you have.
Michael Newman didn't let his diagnosis as HIV positive lead to despair. He has pursued a deeper spirituality and wholeness, and now he shares his wisdom with others.
Paula Sophia has encountered some very dark nights of the soul. Her story is filled with lots of pain and anger, some of it directed at God. And Paula finds herself back there every now and then, wrestling with God again. But I find that Paula's wrestling with her faith has given her powerful insights. I have grown because I've learned from Paula's journey.
Many of you are just getting to know Neill Spurgin and don't know all of his story. He was a minister in the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal denominations. He founded a church and it quickly grew to many hundreds of people. Neill was also a very successful businessman. But he had a dark secret, his sexuality, and he spent eight years in Exodus. When he came out he lost his career and went through an incredibly difficult divorce.
It hasn't been easy for Neill, but he has turned that pain into passion. A passion that cares for other people. A passion that fights for justice and equality for all. A passion to not waste time in sharing God's good news with others who are hurting. And a passion for Dean, that was abundantly apparent at their wedding last week.
In the midst of a lamentation in which Jeremiah cries out because his closest friends are seeking to bring revenge upon him, when he cries out cursing the day he was born, when he denounces God for making him a laughingstock, Jeremiah still finds time to say,
Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord!
It is a mighty testimony.