Sermons

Pain Relief for Humankind, Rev. Dee Ledger, September 10, 2017

As many of you are aware, addiction to prescription painkillers is on the rise.  The same drugs that can alleviate suffering can also become the agents for suffering.  The government estimates that roughly 1.9 million Americans were hooked on opiates in 2013.[1]   And many of those opiates were initially prescribed by doctors for legitimate pain relief.

What is your personal relationship with pain?  How pain resistant are you?  There is a difference between one’s threshold of pain and one’s tolerance of pain.  Although they sound the same, they are actually different.  Your threshold for pain is the minimal intensity at which you begin to feel pain from a particular stimulus. If someone bumps your arm, you might feel neutrally about it.  If he continues to bump your arm, your pain threshold is when you first start to feel discomfort. However, pain tolerance is how much pain you can take before you either physically or mentally break down.  Some people have a low threshold for pain, but a high tolerance.  Others have a high threshold, but low tolerance.  Having a high tolerance for pain is not necessarily a good thing because one can miss or ignore the body’s distress signals telling you something is wrong.

What we do with the pain we encounter in life, both how we approach pain and how we cope, touches us spiritually.  Do we believe that suffering is simply part of life?  Do we believe that all pain can and should be accepted or avoided? Do certain kinds of pain demand or insist to be worked thru before they leave for good?  Should pain be alleviated by whatever means at hand and who gets to decide?  What about communal pain?  Is there a pain scale for the kind of pain that comes when we witness others suffering without recourse or certain relief?  Pain is common to life but the ways we choose to deal with pain, both as individuals and a community, are unique and can vary from age to age, and from situation to situation.

The trouble with pain is that it can affect how we live, what we tolerate, and how we treat others.  Some might remember the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  In it, we learn of Scout and Jem’s strong dislike for Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose due to her near-daily venomous words and wrath.  It isn’t until the end of the novel that we learn that Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict who was trying to get clean of the drug before she died.  In speaking of her after her death, Scout’s father (Atticus) says, I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”[2] 

Both acute and chronic pain can cause many individuals simply to shut down and greatly restrict their engagement—both physical and emotional—with others.  Increase our pain, and we begin to think that our pain is not only unique to us, but wholly unexperienced by others in such a significant way.  James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

Our passage from Romans today may instruct us in dealing with pain—particularly the emotional and spiritual pain that comes from being targeted either for persecution, or for violence, as well as the kind of spiritual pain that comes when one distances oneself from those who are weeping or who in distress.

Paul begins by saying, “Let your love be genuine,” recognizing that many of our issues arise when we falsely love or pretend to feel what we truly do not.  In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.”  Loving from the center of who we are is made easier when we become clearer about who we are, whose we are, and what we deeply value.  When we communicate from our center, we also frequently learn how we are being inconsistent or acting contrary to our deepest core or professed principles.

Sometimes we are not honest with God about how we really feel, and that makes it even more difficult to approach our relationships more honestly.  Surely we know that we are not perfect and we are not saints, but humans do have a tendency to smooth over the difficulties and inconsistencies in ourselves, instead of approaching them with a holy curiosity, understanding, and the same forgiveness that we would likely grant to our good friends.  When we learn how we have painfully distanced ourselves from others, ironically this knowledge can bring us closer to each other.

Paul counsels to be “patient in suffering,” and I used to think that this simply meant to ride out the pain until it dissipated or moved on.  In other words, to wait until the affliction ended.  But now, I believe that to be patient in suffering means to expect God to show up in the pain and to be patient for God’s arrival.  There is a difference between waiting for something to end, like a horror film, an awful divorce, a regime or a conflict, and patiently and expectantly waiting for God to show up in the midst of the mess that has tried one’s heart and endurance and show us a better way.  It seems to me that the pain level is different if we are passively waiting for the last curtain or we are expecting something new to break in on the scene while we continue to act.

Similarly, we are to persevere in prayer, not because we believe that prayer will give us the particular outcome that we want, but because we believe that God is already working thru the situation for the highest good possible.  Our prayer changes us, before it changes anything or anyone else.  Persevering in prayer is the refusal to give up on ourselves or God to find hope within the hopeless and help within hurting.

Perhaps the two hardest of Paul’s instructions to us today are to bless those who persecute us, and not to curse them, and not to repay anyone evil for evil.  Again, in Peterson’s words, “bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath” and “Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.”  That person who cut you off in traffic?  It may be tempting to put your foot on the gas and ride their bumper for the rest of your commute, but this only jeopardizes both of you.  Far better to try to imagine to humanize your enemy and imagine what might have led to their aggression or transgression.  Far better to pray that they make their appointment safely, than to vengefully imagine their demise.  Something in us twists and sickens when we secretly or publicly seek comeuppance for the wrong done to us by another.

In writing to those early Christians, Paul urges them to live harmoniously and to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  There is a story about a farmer who was having a particular issue with his neighbor.

A certain man, a Christian, lived in the southern part of China and was a rice farmer. His farm was located in the middle of a hill. In time of drought he used a water wheel, worked manually by a treadmill, to lift water from an irrigation stream into his field.

Now his neighbor had two fields below his. One night his neighbor made a breach in the retaining bank and drained off all the water from the Christian’s field into his two lower fields. When the Christian notice the breach he repaired it and filled his rice field again.

But then this happened three more times.

Finally he consulted some of his friends and told them what he suspected his neighbor of doing. He asked them, “I’ve tried to be patient, but is it right to continue to be quiet about this?”

After they had prayed about it, one of them said, “If we only try to do the right thing, then surely we are poor Christians. We have to do something more than that which is right.”

The troubled Christian took these words to heart. The next morning, instead of repairing the breach once again, he first filled his neighbor’s two fields with water and then in the afternoon he filled his own field.

After that the water stayed in his field. His neighbor was so amazed at his actions that apologized.  Curious, he inquired the reason why Christian had done as he did, and in due time, the man not only changed his behavior towards Christian but he adopted the faith of his neighbor. [3]

 

Sisters and brothers, we know our world is in deep pain.  Some of this pain we humans have numbed ourselves to; some of this pain we have ignored at our peril, and some of this pain we have tried to alleviate by returning evil for evil.

But Paul, writing in Jesus’ name, gives a different prescription.  Is it easy?  No.  Is it doable?  Yes.  Can Jesus meet us in the pain?  You decide.

Lev Grossman has written, “Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth.”

Sisters and brothers, use your pain.  Let it open you and let it be as fuel for a new age.

Amen.
[1] Nick Stockton, “Americans Have Been Addicted to Prescription Opiates Forever,” Wired, www.wired.com/2016/03/americans-addicted-prescription-opiates-forever/

 

[2] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.

[3] Told in Homiletics Online. https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?keywords=farmer+field+water&  This story comes from Angus Kinnear’s biography of Watchman Nee, Against the Tide.  Some resources say that the neighbor siphoned off water from Christian’s field *seven* times and not *three* as depicted here.