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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

2012-06-24 That's Weird - Part 3 - Pain as a Pathway to Joy

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2012-06-24 That's Weird - Part 3 - Pain as a Pathway to Joy

2012-06-24 That's Weird - Part 3 - Pain as a Pathway to Joy
John 16:20-22
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Back when I was in Junior High, or what some of you call Middle School - during what scientists call the the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era - I had braces. Back then, only the people who got braces were the ones with the really snaggly teeth. These days, it seems like everybody gets braces. I even know some people in their 50's and 60's who have braces. They figure, why should the teenagers have all the fun? Even old people get their grill on.

I remember about three things from having braces. First is that for a while, I had rubber bands from the center of my upper teeth to the center of my lower teeth. I could play music by plucking the bands and moving my mouth around. Made me very popular with the ladies. The second is, I remember taking a basketball to the mouth. Which is never very fun. But when you have braces, it makes you look like Team Edward after dinner. And third, I remember the trips to the orthodontist, to have my braces tightened. Just moving your tongue around brought on this dull, yet fascinatingly irresistible pain. Even soft white bread peanut butter sandwiches ached. Even McDonalds chocolate milkshakes hurt, because you have to suck so hard to get them through the straw, and it was tough living on them for a week, but you persevered to get the essential nutrients every teenage body needs. Braces hurt. And yet, it's good to have them. Because when they come off, de-braced people look so pretty. Or handsome. Beauty hurts.

I mention braces because they are painful. Yet, it's a pain we willingly inflict on our children, or ourselves. Because. If they didn't hurt, they wouldn't work. When you exercise, and you feel the burn, you know you're making progress. You know you're trading a 12-pack stomach for 6-pack abs. If it doesn't hurt, it doesn't work. You do step aerobics to make parts of your body be of steel. It hurts the glutes. But if not, it doesn't work. I have a minister-friend who's lost about 100 pounds. He says he LIKES feeling hungry. Because when he feels hunger pains, he knows he's in control. Pain is just weakness leaving the body. Why do women wear shoes hurtful shoes? That's a rhetorical question, please don't answer. Beauty hurts. Suffering is good for you. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. No pain, no gain. It's just a flesh wound; come back here and fight like a man.

If it doesn't hurt, it doesn't work. It's a concept not entirely unfamiliar to the Bible.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth, "I punish my body, and enslave it.... So that I myself should not be disqualified." He talks like a coach. Or a trainer. Or a physical therapist. Pushing you to go that extra mile. Pulling you to take that extra step. Pressing you to press those extra pounds. 

Or, a Lamaze coach. In John's version of the Gospel, Jesus says, "...you will have pain; but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish...." Riiiiight. Another example of how we know men wrote the Bible. 

People who are enduring pain for the sake of building up life... people who have endured physical or emotional pain and managed to break through the other side... for them, many, many times, pain takes on a religious significance. Just as it did for the people of Bible times.

We're in the last week of a short series of messages called, "That's Weird: Christian Contradictions." Today's message is brought to you in large part by the thoughts in chapter 3 of Graham Standish's book, Paradoxes for Living: Cultivating Faith in Confusing Times. The chapter and this message are both titled, "Pain as the pathway (or, in my interpretation, A pathway)... to joy." It sounds weird. It sounds contradictory to say pain can bring joy. Or is the pathway to joy. I think you can certainly have joy without pain. But to really, really appreciate the joy, to know joy as God knows joy, the Bible would say, you have to go through some pain. Again, that sounds weird. It sounds paradoxical. It's probably not what you want to hear on a Sunday morning when you could have stayed in bed and had your manservant bring you mimosas. Because, that is how the Real Housewives of Knoxville (and their husbands-slash-whatevers) live. Sounds weird. But, there you are. Pain as the pathway, or, a pathway, to joy.


If you're an orthopedic surgeon, boy, have we got the church for you. If you're a neuro-orthopedist, a rheumatologist, or a pain management specialist, we would love to welcome you to your new church home. We will help you get you that new boat in no time. 

I'm sure I've done some hospital visits for other reasons. But so far this year, I have seen way too many of your knees, necks, backs, and hips. They're all starting to look alike. We've got a lot of physical pain. I don't think it's contagious, so if you're a visitor, don't let me scare you off. It's just that for whatever reason, we've had a terrible rash (no pun intended) of some terrible pain this year. And we've got the surgeries, the therapies, the pills and the bills to prove it.

Chronic pain is horrible. Number one, because it hurts. You can't sleep, you can't get around, you can't be in contact with people the way you want to. But number two, it's horrible because you don't know if the pain is ever going away. Or if the best you're going to get is the point of managing it. It can be very depressing. Clinically depressing. It's hard to hold onto hope when you can't stop hurting.

In his book, Standish doesn't put it quite this way, but it kind of boils down this. There's a complex relationship between pain and hope. How far you will push yourself - push your body, push your spirit - how far you will push yourself when you're in pain depends a lot on the amount of hope you have. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean hope for cure or hope for relief from pain. It can mean hope just to get up and get through the day. And it also doesn't necessarily mean physical pain.

In our country, if a church is going to be full (other than at Christmas), chances are it's going to be on Easter, when we celebrate the resurrection, and new life. Standish describes talking with pastors from Africa. In some of those war-torn, oppressed, poverty-craters of countries, hardly anyone shows up on Easter. That's because they all come on Good Friday. When the church remembers the crucifixion. The people - who live in horrible emotional and economic pain - identify much more with Jesus when he's on the cross, than when he's in a heavenly body. Now, the people of those African countries are deeply, deeply spiritual. Even though they're in horrible pain, sometimes physical, sometimes other kinds. They're in horrible pain, but by the blunt force of will, or by the grace of God - by both - they have hope. They're not hoping for relief through resurrection. They're hoping for relief through crucifixion. They're hoping for relief from a savior who suffers. Relief from having a savior who suffers right along with them. Someone who says, "If you're descending into hell, I'm going with you."

On the other hand, we Americans - we North Americans - have a lot more tools at our disposal to get rid of our pain. We're not like other countries that have been oppressed for so long they don't know any other way to be. And our Christianity shows it. Heck, in most Protestant churches, you never even see Jesus on the cross. In a lot of progressive churches with bands and video and such, you don't even see a cross. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. I think it's a reflection of people's relationship with pain and hope, and how much pain they're willing to even acknowledge. What happens when you're in some kind of pain and your church won't acknowledge or even talk about it? I guess you stay home until you're over it.


John Chapter 16 gives us an interesting read on the resurrection. Interesting because in some ways it contradicts what we've been told about the resurrection. Because it points back to the cross. Because it doesn't skip past the suffering. At all.

It starts out like this. Jesus says, "So you have pain now...." He acknowledges the disciples' pain. This was written for people who were oppressed, politically. This was written for people who were hungry, and poor, and in physical and psychological and spiritual pain. Jesus says, "So, you have pain now." He never, ever dismisses what the people are going through. He never, ever says, "Hey, listen up, you babies. Chin up and march on. Take a pain pill. See your doctor. Get some surgery. Stop whining." Jesus says, "So, you have pain now." And it's bad.

But he doesn't end there. He goes on. "So you have pain now... but I will see you again." He doesn't say, "But don't worry, it'll all go away. I'll cast a spell and make it disappear." Actually, no. He never says anything like that. He says, "...but I will see you again." The savior who understands your pain isn't gone for good. He will return. And then, he says, 

"And [then] your hearts will rejoice..." Will you be pain-free? Maybe. Maybe not. He doesn't say. He says, "I'll see you again, and your hearts will rejoice." You'll rejoice because the savior who suffers with you isn't gone. So what? So, there's hope. So there's joy.

And there's a huge, huge, huge promise. Don't miss this. Because it's so huge. He says, 

"I'll see you again and your hearts will rejoice (dot, dot, dot)" Here it comes, wait for it... "and no one will take your joy from you."

No one will take your joy from you.

It's hard to grasp the entirety of what Jesus is saying here. It's hard to express. But what I think it means is so simple I'll try not to mess it up. It simply means, I will break the relationship between pain and hope. I will break the relationship between pain and joy. I'll break the connection. Your joy will no longer be dependent on how much pain you're feeling. Your joy will no longer hinge on your force of will. Your joy will no longer be taken away by your pain, or your situation, or your illness, or your body, or your brain, or your environment, or your parents, or your abuser, or your addictions, or your paycheck, or your possessions, or your poverty, or your wealth - No One - Nothing - will ever, ever, ever take your joy from you. Is that cause for hope? (I said) Is that cause for hope? (You bet your Aaaafliction it is.)

And so we have hope. Hope for today. Hope to take that next step. Hope to look the cause of our pain in the eye. Hope to say, "You will not get me. Not today." "I will not run aimlessly. I will not beat at the air. I may not claim a prize you can see. But I will have hope. And I will have joy. And no one. No one. Will take it from me."


One of the early saints of the church, St. Augustine of Hippo. And for those of you who immediately think of the movie, Madagascar, Hippo was the city where he lived, not the semi-aquatic mammals in his church. St. Augustine of Hippo, a city in northern Africa, a long way from where hippopotomai live - St. Augustine probably had more to do with how Christianity evolved than anyone since the Bible. Augustine said this about the church: That the church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners. 2000 years, and we're still working on that. But St. Augustine of Hippo said it first and it is so true. If we do church right, we're not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.

Your pain may be physical. Your pain may be psychological. Which, actually, is physical, by the way. It's time we stopped arbitrarily separating the brain from the rest of the body. Your pain my be something in your past that you can't get away from. Your pain may be a crippling fear of any number of things. But if we're going to be honest with each other, every single one of us has some kind of pain. And it's standing in the way of our hope. It's standing in the way of our joy. 

Or maybe not. Because if our Savior, if our Savior, Jesus Christ, stands with us in our pain, and if Jesus is the way, the truth, and life that connects us to our hope and joy, then maybe, our pain, the pain that brings us here and brings us into connection with Jesus, is the pathway to our joy, the pathway to our hope. Bring your pain to the hospital for sinners. And no one - No One - will take your joy from you.