When I was in seminary 30 years ago, Dr. Rev. John Weborg was one of my professors. He was the professor of theology. He is a deeply reflective speaker and teacher. His words were always profound and offered much substance. There was one topic he talked about that took root deep within me, and I remember it well these 30 years later. He talked about the difference between religious pain and spiritual pain, which I will describe in a moment. Let me share a little more first.
When I first graduated from seminary, I worked with refugees who had been tortured. They were from all over the world, but at that time, they were predominantly from Central America. What people went through was heartbreaking and beyond comprehension. It was a hard way to begin ministry being faced with such extreme suffering. I learned quickly, that much of what I thought I knew, went right out the window. It was hard to know what to do with such extreme suffering.
Most of the people I spoke with had two responses. One group claimed to have gotten through the horrific ordeal because of their faith, believing that they would not have survived if they hadn’t had God and prayer to cling to. The other group gave up because they didn’t know where God was in the midst of it.
It was then that I had a conversation with Dr Rev. John Weborg and described to him this ministry. He spoke again of these two different kinds of pain.
Religious pain is pain that we encounter through persons or the church who represent God. In the case of the refugees, some churches blamed them for being tortured, claiming it was their sin that caused this to happen. This was so grievous, for instead of the church standing with, for, and beside these persons, they blamed them instead. Maybe they did so to stay safe, or because they aligned themselves with persons of power, or maybe they had a skewed view of faith. No matter what the reason, it was grievous. It happened in World War II, when those in the church were silent while Jewish persons were taken away to concentration camps. What many don’t know is that countless LGBTQ persons were taken and killed there as well. And it happens today when we in the church are silent, when the Body of Christ doesn’t stand with, for or beside a person or community especially during a time of suffering.
Spiritual pain, is experienced through one’s direct struggle with God, like: when we undergo a trying time and don’t understand what God is or is not doing in the midst of it; or when we don’t sense God’s presence or we feel like God has abandoned us; or when we don’t receive the relief or the answers for which we are seeking, especially during a time of suffering. People can experience that during a time of illness, loss, and tragedy. They may wonder where God is or why God isn’t delivering them.
The tragic part for me is that people often interpret religious pain as spiritual pain. They can believe that God is letting them down, that God has left them, when it is the church that is doing so. I have journeyed alongside many in this place. Nothing breaks my heart more, and I believe that God grieves and weeps too.
When I told Dr. Rev. John Weborg about my ministry with the refugees he suggested that I teach them how to lament. To lament means to cry and grieve and mourn out loud, to express sorrow strongly. When we lament in prayer, we express our pain and grief in words and cries and groans directly to God. And one of the many things that is so great about God is that the Spirit partners with us in our lament, because as it says in Romans 8:26 & 27, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” So even when we don’t know what to say, when all we can do is groan or cry or sigh, God promises us that the Spirit “intercedes for us through wordless groans.” God joins us in our groans with God’s own. And when we don’t have the words to pray, we can also use God’s words, for the Psalms are filled with prayers of Lament. (Psalm 22, 25, 27, 74, 90 are but a few)
To lament gives voice to our pain, our cries, our bewilderment, and our anger. Especially in times of suffering, to lament can bring relief. Spiritual Director and writer, Teresa A. Blythe says, “If Jesus can ask God why God forsook him on the cross, we can have confidence that God can handle our honesty as well.” When we lament, we are working out our pain, giving voice to our anguish in prayer, with the one who joins our groans with God’s own.
We just journeyed through Holy Week in the Church Year. We remembered and experienced the great loss again of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Grieving through that gave birth to the celebration of new life on Easter. What’s difficult is that suffering has not ended. The recent bombings in Brussels reminds us of this, as does each time racism claims another life, or when another LGBTQ person loses theirs. There is so much suffering around us, and so much to lament, including the racial profiling of Blacks, Muslims, and Immigrants. We lament the acts of violence of persons against persons. We lament the ways people of color still experience discrimination and prejudice on so many levels. We lament when the church does not stand with, for, or beside those who are suffering. We lament when others, like so many in the LGBTQ community, believe that God has left them because they experienced being left by and excluded by the church.
Each time the church contributes to suffering either by omission or co-mission, spiritual pain may be experienced. So how do we experience the life of Resurrection in a world where so much suffering exists? I think one of the ways life comes, one of the ways that the light shines in the darkness, one of the ways that hope becomes a reality is when Christ shines in and through us. It happens when we are present with, to, and for others. It happens when we let God be God, and when we love just as we have been loved. We stand with, for, and beside all, just as Jesus showed us through His life, just as Jesus does with us. May we be agents of God’s healing in people’s lives and in the church.