Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering

Recently I was privileged to have been asked to contribute a guest post on my story for the “God and Suffering: Our Story” series on the wonderful Thorns and Gold blog. The Thorns and Gold blog explores themes of suffering, faith, and hope, and is certainly worth following. Here, though, is my own guest contribution to that blog:

shutterstock_113875279Ten years ago my life changed completely when I was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition and required major back surgery. This story would be a far more interesting if I could write about an injury playing rugby for my beloved Wales or while skiing at the Winter Olympics. Alas, no. It was an injury sustained playing badminton in the local sports hall that led to the investigations that discovered prolapsed and degenerative disks. Within three months of the initial injury, the pain in my lower back and my legs was excruciating and unceasing. I was unable to sit or stand for longer than a few minutes. I was stuck, quite literally, lying on a sofa all day, unable to go to work or to socialise outside of the house.

my-god-my-god-why-have-you-forsaken-meSix months later I was lying in a hospital bed in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London and I opened my Bible on Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest”. My eyes filled with tears as the words echoed the emptiness and frustration I was feeling. Physical pain, combined with the mental anxiety of facing a long-term, chronic condition, led me to ask questions most of us face at some point in our lives: What’s the point of this suffering? Why doesn’t God stop suffering? Is life really worth this pain?

tears2During a lengthy recovery, which included hospitalisation for two months, my view of these big questions of theodicy began to change. I saw that the mystery of suffering was far less important than the mystery of love. On returning to ministerial work in churches in Cardiff, Wales, I came to realise that the most joyous smiles often mask terrible pain and tragedy – bereavement, divorce, illness, disability, addiction, or chronic pain. At some point in our lives, each of us has to face suffering. Whilst none of us are given the option of rejecting suffering, we are blessed with the choice of the path that we take through the dark night of our pain.

Through my own experience of suffering I realised that, while I couldn’t change the pain I was feeling, I could change my attitude towards the situation. Slowly, but surely, I began to re-wire my ways of viewing the world, as I embarked on a journey of forging meaning from the apparent meaninglessness of suffering. This was certainly not an easy process, and involved soul-searching, tears, and prayer. I was convinced, though, that the one thing that we have left through any amount of suffering, great or small, is a choice of how we react to what we are enduring. As an Arabian saying reminds us: ‘The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the garden’.

hope_in_focusFor all of us, opening our eyes to moments of God’s light and grace, even in our times of suffering, have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on. ‘The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it’ (John 1:5).

Cappella_Sistina_Sistine_Chapel_2476394326Ten years on and I am still unable to sit or stand for long periods. Much of my life is, therefore, spent pacing around rooms (even during meetings) or lying down (while I prepare lectures or sermons). I also use icepacks, heat patches, and a tens machine on a daily basis. Through the whole experience, though, my view on suffering has changed radically. No longer do I regard suffering as something that stops life from being lived. Instead, I aim to find hope and meaning in those small, seemingly insignificant areas of life that I took for granted before my injury – in nature, in friendship, in family, in laughter, in the arts, in memories, and so on. Most of us, after all, are like flies crawling on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel – we are unaware of the depth of beauty and joy all around us.

reflections on Christ - crucifixionI can truly say, then, that God has been vividly present in my pain. Not that he wants us to suffer, either directly or indirectly. Rather, he is present in our suffering, helping to redeem and transform it. As the Old Testament shows us, God suffers alongside the persecuted, imprisoned, and victimised. ‘In all their distress, He too was distressed’ (Isaiah 63:9). Likewise, Jesus’s sorrows on the cross show us that God truly understands our dark times. As such, he can meet us in our afflictions, bringing meaning and hope at the most unlikely times. God is love, and just a glimpse of that love can powerfully illuminate the darkness that we are going through. ‘And here in dust and dirt, O here,’ wrote Welsh poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.

cropped-there-is-always-hope-2516881-1Those times when the still small voice of calm seems mute may well be frequent for us, but my own experience is that, even in that silence, we can actively listen for his voice. By doing so, we affirm the importance of love, joy, hope, and meaning in our dark times, rather than dwelling on the horrible reality of suffering. Even though it may not feel like it at the time, our trials and tribulations are, therefore, turned into triumphs of our will and spirit. After all, like diamonds, which sparkle all the more brightly the more facets are cut, our lives reflect God’s light all the more brilliantly when we have many cuts.

See also my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and the following blog posts:

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

‘The path of peace’ (Luke 1:79): Can our faith help us when we face depression, anxiety, and stress?

Worry may not kill you, but it can stop you living

“A Satsuma is not a Failed Orange”: Listening to God’s call

VocationI live two varied and interesting lives. Don’t worry, this isn’t a confession of a secret life that I live. Rather, I’m referring to the fact that I have two ministries. On the one hand, I am blessed to be vicar of a wonderful church in a picturesque part of Cardiff (Roath Park), and, on the other hand, I have a role for the diocese of Llandaff – the diocesan director of ordinands. When I summarise that part of my job to those who aren’t Christian, I tell them that, in a nutshell, I help people work out whether God is calling them to be a vicar or whether God is calling them to something else, which will be different, but equally as important. Today is, therefore, an important day for me, as it is Vocation Sunday in our diocese – the day that we think about what being “called” actually means.

Little TrysWhen I was a child, I loved the Old Testament story of little Samuel being called by God in the temple at night. In fact, I loved it so much that Little Trys used to lie awake at night, straining to hear his name being called out. Is God calling me, I would ask myself… and I would listen so very carefully. But every night I was disappointed – silence! Then, and this is completely true, one night I finally heard my name – ‘Trystan…’ I thought ‘surely not’. But then I heard it again ‘Trystan…’ I was scared about talking directly to God, but I was also excited, because I knew the answer to this – I’d heard the story of Samuel in Sunday School, so I said confidently the words he had been told to say when he heard God calling him: ‘speak, Lord, your servant is listening’. And, sure enough, the voice replied ‘good, Trystan, because I have such an important task for you… tomorrow you must go out and buy your wonderful older brother the most expensive birthday present you can find him!’ At that point I noticed the shadow of my brother outside my door. I was distraught! I was actually so disappointed that, at that point, I came to the conclusion that God would never call someone like me. He only calls ‘special’ people, I thought – great prophets, very holy people, good people, worthy people.

GiftsBut, the reality is, of course, that, if we look in the Bible, God calls all sorts of people to do his work, from all sorts of backgrounds. So, being “called” is not about being ‘good’, ‘worthy’, or ‘holy’. God actually calls all of us, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done. After all, each and every one of us is a mixture of good and bad. I am the second of five children – my mum and dad kept trying until they got one they liked… (joke, mum!) When I was a child, my older brother was a good rugby player and a talented musician. I rather saw myself as the black sheep of my family, then my younger brother grew up and he was even more of a rebel than I was – and so, in my mind, he took over that mantle as the ‘black sheep’ and I was relegated to the ‘grey sheep’ of the family!

The reality is, though, that all of us are grey sheep. As the theologian Hans Kung put it, ‘a few of us are white sheep, a few of us are black sheep, but, let’s face it, most of us are zebras’. So, each of us also have a rebellious side, which can be selfish and self-centred, but each of us also have various God-given talents and gifts and He can use each of us for his purpose.  ‘Oh here in dust and dirt, O here; The lilies of his love appear’, wrote the seventeenth-century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan.

Despite our weaknesses, then, God calls each and every one of us. So, the question is not ‘is God calling you to do something?’ No, the question is ‘what is God calling you to do?’ So, on this Vocation Sunday, can I suggest that you think about two things:

I am SuperFirstly, why not take time to think how you are being called to use your gifts and talents for God’s glory? Some of our talents are obvious to all (some of us are talented singers, skillful musicians, wonderful actors, or great cake-bakers), but, alongside from our obvious talents, we must also all search for, and work on, our less recognizable gifts (like the gift of being able to talk to people, the gift of smiling at people, the gift of being patient with people who you find to be particularly annoying, or the gift of just being aware when someone needs help or needs a kind word or two). None of these talents are any less important than the others. Someone once said to me that a ‘Satsuma is not a failed orange’! All talents are important and valuable and useful to God and He’s calling you to use your talents. So ask yourself this week – how are you being called to use your gifts and talents to bring light into people’s lives? ‘Oh here in dust and dirt, O here; The lilies of his love appear’.

Ipod PriestBut, secondly, can I urge you to consider, and pray for, those who are feeling called to ordained ministry. You yourself may be feeling called to offer yourself to explore being a priest, a pastor, a vicar. If so, pray about it and talk about it with someone who knows you well and to your parish priest. But, even if you don’t feel such a call, ask yourself one question: do you know anyone who you think would make a great vicar? If so, can I urge you to have a quiet word with him or her and to suggest to them that they might consider exploring such a ministry. What’s the worst that can happen? Yes, they could burst out laughing and say: “you must be joking!” But, on the other hand, your word to them might just be the one thing that makes them start exploring a ministry that is so varied, so wonderful, and so rewarding. ‘Oh here in dust and dirt, O here; The lilies of his love appear’.

And so I finish with the prayer that I put together for the diocese of Llandaff for this Vocation Sunday:

Loving God,

thank you for calling us at baptism to be your people

and for inviting each of us to serve you through the gift of our lives.

In response to your call we again say, “Yes.”

Keep us faithful to your mission and our vocation.

And, gracious Lord, we ask that you inspire more women and men

of faith and compassion to ministry, service, and leadership.

Fill them with your Spirit of wisdom and grace

to proclaim the Good News,

to bring peace and hope into their situations,

and to witness your presence among us.

May those who are already opening themselves to your call

be encouraged and strengthened

to take your love into our communities with joyful and hopeful hearts.

Through Jesus Christ, our Lord,

Amen.

(Parts of this blog post are taken from my book Real God in the Real World: Advent and Christmas Reflections on the Coming of Christ)