Sunday, November 28, 2010

spoiler alert

if you're reading along in the all saints advent devotional daily, don't read this post--you'll get to it on december 6. (if you're not reading the devotional, you can! and should, i might add. you can download it free right here.)

for the past several years, i've written a short reflection for our church's advent devotional and have then shared that reflection here. on this first sunday of advent, here's my contribution from this year.

An Advent reflection about suffering?

In a recent conversation with some friends about the question of suffering—why? whence? and those sorts of things—I started thinking about the suffering of the younger son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. Superficially, we understand what happened to him, and we’re right there with Jesus: the son makes a bad choice, and so he suffers humiliation and starvation as consequences. That’s tidy, and it fits with our sense of justice just fine. Right on, Jesus. A good lesson for children, even: respect your parents or else. See what happened to him? Jesus said so! But is the prodigal son’s suffering really about judgment? Plenty of people make bad choices and don’t suffer for them. So why does the son in Jesus’ parable suffer?

I suspect the answer is in the result. Until the prodigal son suffers and is overwhelmed by his circumstances, he does not realize what he has forsaken, what he is lacking. His suffering illuminates for him his need and sends him searching for the only thing he knows that can meet that need.

It’s a terrible thing to say to someone who is suffering, so please don’t. But all the same, I think it’s true: God allows us to suffer because he wants us to recognize our need. If someone had said that to me in certain painful periods of my life, I would have been tempted to hit him. But now, outside that suffering, I can recognize its truth. When we suffer, really suffer, we are driven to desperation. And sometimes it’s only in our desperation that we can recognize what we’re really desperate for. Unless our situation is really bad, we’re pretty sure we can handle it ourselves, solve it ourselves, recover from it ourselves. But when things are really bad? We recognize what we are not, and what we need most of all: God.

I’m sorry, you’re probably thinking, but what does this have to do with Advent?

For me, the joyful waiting of Advent is inextricably linked with the suffering-filled waiting for death. In Advent 2008, two days before Gaudete (joy? really?) Sunday, my nearly three-year-old daughter Eliza died. She had spent her life evading a death sentence of an illness, had spent the weeks since Thanksgiving (thanks? really?) waiting to lose her life-long battle. On December 12, 2008, I experienced an unbearable weight of suffering that could drive me nowhere else but to my Father, the one whose birth into a world of suffering I was to celebrate in only a matter of days. Christmas that year was not about gifts—I barely managed to purchase any and have no idea what I received—or carols or feasts or family. It was about a baby I had lost and a Baby who had come to Earth to be my only hope in that loss. It was about being driven by my overwhelming suffering to the only One who could meet my need, from starvation home to my Father. My Father who was about to become the Son, the Answer to a question I was only just being forced to realize I needed to ask.

Last Advent and this, too, remain inextricably linked with pain and sorrow and suffering and grief for me. The challenge is whether or not I’ll remember to let that suffering drive me Home into the arms of the long-awaited Baby whose birth—and certain return—is the antidote to all that pain. Will I be reminded in my need, like the prodigal son, that the only cure for my starvation is found in my Father’s house? Will I be driven Home?

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