*Note from the Editor:
This issue of Elements marks the first of a year-long series on “tough conversations.” The range of issues will be broad, but whether we are dealing with doubt, racial tension, economic disparity, or the meaning of suffering, we are operating with the assumption that the people of God are meant to engage our incredibly complex world. Yet, it is often the case that our ministry context does not allow space for open and honest dialogue about these complexities. My hope is that, over the course of this year, Elements serves as a springboard for communities of faith (and their leaders) to enter this space. Of course, I would be remiss to encourage these kinds of conversations without entering the fray myself. So in the next few issues, I will be offering up my own story of pain and doubt. It’s a difficult story for me to share, and it will be tough for some to read, but my hope is that my story meets yours in a way that is life-giving for this moment in your ministry journey.
I am sitting in what could be the waiting room of any neurosurgeon’s office in the country. Trying to look “normal” and to distract myself from the searing pain coursing through my body, I scan the room. In one corner, a man engages in an important business deal on his cell phone. I imagine him to be a powerful executive meting out his daily tongue-lashings to interns and inept junior colleagues. But the forceful, even authoritative tone of his voice is belied by his posture. Whereas the volume and cadence of his rant would suggest a wildly gesticulating speaker, he can barely move. He is sitting down only in the most technical sense, for his back is contorted into such a grotesque arch that the top of his head lies flat against the wall. His chair provides virtually no support for his weary body. Rather, it serves only as a platform for his paralyzing pain. To his left, another man has abandoned his seat altogether. He is on his hands and knees, attempting to read a magazine while he shifts his bodyweight back and forth to mitigate his pain. His periodical rests serenely on the very chair that, in a cruel twist of fate, he is no longer able to use. Just then, the elevator dings and a woman in a wheelchair emerges from behind the stainless-steel doors. I have never seen her before, but I know from the hollow look in her eyes that she too has been consumed. An unyielding force has swallowed her whole. As I watch her attendant roll her into the waiting room with the rest of us, I have a brief moment of clarity. These people are not simply sick or injured. They are on a slow, painful march toward death. And I am right at their heels.
For the past ten years of my life, I have suffered what countless others silently endure every single day: chronic pain. More specifically, I have a degenerative disc disorder, which means that the herniated and bulging discs in my spine cause severe pain in my back, chest, shoulder, arm, and hand. On good days, the pain is manageable. I am able to sit at my computer, go to the gym, and even pick up my two- and four-year-old daughters with only mild discomfort. But on the bad days, the pain is unspeakable. Imagine a bad muscle cramp. Mix that with the sensation of an arm or hand that has lost its circulation “waking up” after “falling asleep.” Then, imagine being lit on fire from the inside out. To add insult to injury (literally), I can neither lie down nor sit down without exacerbating the problem, which means that on many nights I simply pace the hallways of my house waiting for dawn to arrive. When I am able to manage a few hours of sleep, I do so by carefully situating myself in “Daddy’s bed”—the name my daughter has given to the chair in which I collapse after finally succumbing to prescribed narcotics. As a result, while I am only thirty-five years of age, I already feel incredibly old. In spite of numerous potential sympathizers who also brave their fair share of sleepless nights, I also feel alone – so very alone. And broken. And helpless.
I am now a regular at my local pharmacy. Like a coffeehouse patron seeking his daily caffeine fix, my pharmacist knows me by my first name and has my prescriptions ready by the time I reach the counter. So, in addition to dealing with blinding pain, I have the dread of becoming addicted to the very thing that helps alleviate some of that pain. The irony of course, is that these pain “killers” actually kill nothing. They only dull the severity of the pain and, at the same time, blur an otherwise crisp reality into formless shades of grey. This is one of the core problems of chronic pain: Even with all the advancements of modern medicine, the cause is often impossible to pinpoint, and “treatment” is a mixture of guesswork, alchemy, and mysticism. In an attempt to make sense of a patient’s chronic pain, I have witnessed many rationally-minded and scientifically-committed doctors become believers in a realm of possibility that exists beyond the reach of scientific investigation. In other words, for both the wounded and the healer, pain has the unique capacity to press us beyond the limits of our understanding. It is not merely indescribable in a figurative sense. It is literally so.
In light of its inexpressible qualities, I am hesitant to give voice to this experience for fear that the words will conjure the very reality I am attempting to describe. In truth, there really are no words, but if pressed, I would say that my pain is akin to torture. Indeed, I recently experienced a particularly bad flare-up of my symptoms. During this span of time, I had what can only be described as a “dark night of the soul.” I was just exhausted—with everything. I was tired of hurting. I was tired of the sleepless nights. I was tired of being a burden to my wife and children. But most of all, I had come to the point where I was tired of the world that God had made—a capricious world where the whole of my reality was defined by unending pain. I could simply no longer accept it or endure it. Every one of my nerve endings reverberated with the words of Dostoyevski in The Brothers Karamazov: “It isn’t that I refuse to acknowledge God, but I am respectfully giving him back my ticket to a world like this.”
As a member of a religious tradition that values conviction and devotion, I find I have very few places in my life where I am allowed the freedom to express this level of fear and doubt. Much like the uncertainty it produces, pain is not “normal” in the contemporary Western world. It is a sign of weakness. It is fundamentally an aberration. The chronic nature of my pain can also be a burden to others, especially to those who care for me the most and desperately want to see me well. Consequently, my struggle with chronic pain usually takes place in silence. Although hidden from view, it is a daily struggle that shapes and re-shapes not only my faith, but also my basic awareness of the world. It is a terrible burden, an affliction that I would gladly relinquish. I pray for relief every day. But the deeper truth—the truth that is as unexpected as it is daunting— is that this pain does far more than simply press me into a realm of disbelief. Time and again, it ushers me into the catastrophic presence of God.
Catastrophic. Rarely are we comfortable associating a word like this with the work of God. I use it intentionally though, because it captures an important element of my story. I have been shattered—in more ways than one. But this devastation has opened up a whole new register of meaning for me. I have encountered a depth in this life that I never knew existed, so that when I meet fellow sojourners, deep literally calls to deep. Because we see life and the world through a shared, pain-riddled lens, we understand each other in a way that few others can. By simply sharing our stories, we commune.
Perhaps it is not surprising then, that my work in the field of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary is primarily focused on the power and meaning of these kinds of stories—narratives that not only allow contemporary persons to make sense of their pain, but also provide resources for the church to relate that pain to the presence and movement of God in the world. Throughout my life and ministry, I have been blessed to learn from a group of wise women and men who know suffering deep within themselves. They created space for me to doubt, to ask, and to find new life amidst the pain. Now, as I engage on a daily basis with current and future church leaders, I am continually reminded of the hope that can and does emerge from these invaluable spaces—a hard-won hope that does not deny our chronic pain, but weaves it into the redemptive story that God is writing for us all.