VIEW VIDEO It is good to be back. I was at a Quaker pastor’s retreat this week, then last weekend Joan and I went to the farmhouse to work outside, cleaning away the dross of winter, picking up fallen sticks, raking the flower beds, mowing and weed-whipping, sweeping the porches, opening the windows to let the breeze blow through and refresh the house. That wind comes off the Great Plains, across Iowa and Illinois and into Indiana, scouring everything clean, including the dust balls in our farmhouse, that swirl around before getting sucked up by our vacuum cleaner and carried outside to the trashcan. Out with the old, in with the new.
Spring is the time for making plans. This past March, over spring break, we went to Kentucky to visit Joan’s brother, Jack, who has Parkinson’s Disease, and Jack put me in charge of his ash’s distribution. He was very matter of fact about it. The Apple family faces the challenges of life directly, without drama. There’s a grove of trees in the upper meadow across the road from our farmhouse and he told me to bury his ashes there, in the old family cemetery, which I didn’t know existed, so Joan and I spent part of last weekend looking for it up there in the woods. We found some square hand-hewn stones that could possibly have been tombstones. And we found the old quarry, from which the foundation stones for the Apple houses and barn had been dug and cut some 150 years ago.
It’s a humbling thought to stand amidst a family graveyard deep in the woods and remember how simply and directly our ancestors faced death. Things have certainly changed. Linen shrouds and pine boxes have given way to custom caskets built far away. Family graveyards in woodlots and pastures have been replaced by well-groomed cemeteries. Shovels wielded by family and friends have gone by the way, replaced by the excavator, expertly wielded by the men from the burial vault company, who stand respectfully off to the side until everyone is gone, before filling in the grave of someone they never knew. We pay people to do things we used to do ourselves. Except for the Apple family. I fully expect Joan’s brother to drive himself to the family farm the week before he dies and dig the hole for his ashes, then pry out a boulder from the quarry, hewn it into a rectangle, then chisel his name on it. Do suffering and loss lose their sting when faced directly?
We’ve been thinking about the basic tenets of the Christian faith, in light of the rise of Christian Nationalism, which is both a distortion of Christianity and a renunciation of America’s noblest virtues. One focus of Christianity, and indeed almost every religion, has been to answer the question of suffering. Why do we suffer? Traditionally, Christianity, borrowing heavily on the Hebrew story of Adam and Eve, has said we suffer because of humanity’s sinful nature. That before sin, we were strangers to suffering and evil, but then sin opened the door to calamity and pain and disease and death. If you know me, you’ll know I find this absurd theology and thoroughly reject it.
Which doesn’t mean I reject suffering. Suffering is very real, and our response to it shapes and fashions how we live together. Consequently Christian Nationalism can’t be fully explained by racism or ignorance or fascism, but also by grief. Wherever Christian Nationalism has raised its head, grief and fear were dominant factors, either grieving a perceived loss of privilege and power or grieving a perceived loss of identity and status. Behind every movement of racism and fascism can be found someone grieving the loss of something they thought essential to their well-being. I believe this is true not only for individuals, but for cultures and countries. Underneath the rant of anger is invariably found the wail of loss and suffering.
The only way around this is to remind ourselves of two great truths. Suffering is inevitable, and no one is exempt. Suffering is inevitable. To live is to suffer, to live is to experience loss. There is simply no avoiding it. There have been persons I’ve known who I’ve envied, thinking their lives were perfect. Beautiful home, bright children, wealth, good health, popularity, hair. They had it all. But every time I have felt that way about someone, I have eventually learned that even their lives had seasons of suffering and loss. Every one. Every person I have ever met. Suffering is inevitable. No one is exempt. And if we believe we are exempt, if we believe we deserve to sit squarely at the top of life’s heap, untouched by hardship or tragedy, then suffering, when it finally and inevitably visits us, will twist and deform us, and maybe even break us.
There is no person so angry and broken as the person who thought themselves exempt from hardship or critique, who thought themselves superior, invincible, and now knows otherwise and cannot bear it. But suffering is inevitable, and no one is exempt.
I remember when sociologists first announced that at the current rates of birth and immigration, the United States would no longer be a majority white nation by 2045. I remember thinking, “Wonderful! That’ll spice things up. All kinds of people from everywhere. How fun is that!” I thought of pale, pasty Gulley’s marrying exotic people from other cultures and having the most gorgeous grandchildren. Couldn’t we all use more color!
But what I welcomed was seen by others as a threat to their privilege and they began to march, chanting, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.” As if the universe should act to suit them, should change its direction to keep them on top, as if cultural trends should ground to a halt to accommodate them. There is no person so angry and broken as the person who thought themselves superior, and now knows otherwise and cannot bear it.
Theology 101. Suffering is inevitable, and no one is exempt. It isn’t because our ancestors disobeyed God. It is because we are human. This is the law of the universe. Those who are spiritually healthy learn from their suffering and do not resent it, nor spend their life trying to avoid it at any cost. They learn they are not always protected from difficulty, and when they learn that and accept that, they become more wholly human, more loving, more mature, and ironically, more joyful.
It isn’t suffering that makes us sad. It is our continued anger about our suffering that depresses us and weighs us down. Suffering needn’t be the death of our joy. Indeed, when accepted and thoughtfully engaged, it can become a doorway through which wholeness and joy are found.