A few weeks ago Dan and I went to Costco and the grocery store together. When our children were still at home, we used to joke that going to the store together was like a date—a chance to have a longer conversation with just the two of us.
Now that he is working two jobs and I am commuting, our schedules do not mesh very well, so when we got in the car to go to the store, we joked that it was another Costco/grocery store date. He told me about a conversation he and our daughter, Leah had on a long walk when they were exercising together over Christmas break. They were talking about how easy it is in our family conversation to catastrophize things—to get into a “catalog of calamities” as if everything in life was going wrong, and it was all falling apart.
Leah said to Dan, “We get this from mom.”
I was wondering to myself, When did our Costco/grocery store date turn into a forum on my issues? Let’s talk about your issues instead, Dan—like when you leap into the future and decide what is going to happen a year from now in everyone’s life and you can’t seem to get this morning’s cereal bowl into the dishwasher! But that will have to wait for the next Costco/grocery store date.
I was in the hot seat that day and Dan was inviting me into the self-examination of Lent a few weeks early, so I decided to dive deep into the conversation, and admit that it was true. In fact, I can tell you without a moment’s hesitation how awful our life became in 2007-08 and how we had catalog of calamities like Job: Uncle Henry died in the spring; a few months later, Dan’s mom died after painful, 9-year battle with Alzheimer’s; the next month my favorite aunt died; the next month I was diagnosed with two kinds of breast cancer; five months later Dan’s dad was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer; a week later we got a $10,000 tax bill because of mistake our accountant made on our taxes; nine months later my mom was diagnosed with advanced liver disease; the next year Dan’s dad died; we had two years of my being really ill before she died, and nine months later my grandmother died.
We tried to hold it together with two congregations and three busy kids.
I did have the catalog of calamities in my head because it felt like too much—maybe it was not too much for those who were dealing with it without fighting cancer at the same time, and then trying to recover from it, but it nearly broke me.
Imagine my comfort when I read our passage for today from 2 Corinthians—Paul has a catalog of calamities as well—and he even uses the word! In verse 5 he has endured “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger!” In chapter 11 of 2 Corinthians he adds flogging, stoning, shipwrecks, being lost at sea, being cold and naked, danger from bandits, the wilderness, rivers, and being near death. Sounds pretty awful to me (maybe he is my biblical soulmate!).
First Paul gives us permission to lament and name that life is hard. Sometimes we do have to list of our catalog of calamities and we need someone to hear it and say, “yeah, that’s really awful, and I am sorry that this is such a hard time.”
There are forty-two Psalms of individual lament full of the faithful coming to God in complaint about the hardships of life. For example, Psalm 13:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain[a] in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Martin Luther said of the Psalms of Lament, “What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid the storm winds of every kind? . . . Where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself. . . . And that they speak these words to God and with God, this I repeat, is the best thing of all. This gives the words double earnestness and life.”
Perhaps you are beginning Lent in a season of lament—where you need to name your catalog of calamites, to have someone hear and validate that life is hard sometimes, help you give it to God, and know that you are not alone in your suffering.
We hear in Paul’s list of hardships that some of them came as the result of living in a fallen world—afflictions and cancer, a horn in the flesh, death and grief. Some came as a result of what other’s did to him—beatings, riots, exorbitant tax bills, broken relationships. Still others came as a result of being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ—hunger, labor, sleepless nights, floggings, serving congregations and taking care of family. If you are in lament, then please, let me know, so I can visit, and we can lament and pray together. When we know we are not in lament alone, it is easier to express it, feel it, and eventually move forward to the next step.
That is where Paul leads us—to the next step. He does not get stuck, stay, or dwell in the calamities, and that is our temptation—that’s my temptation—to remain in lament. It’s tempting to rehearse the list of catastrophes over and over—it is hard to admit that maybe even I take pride that my lot has been worse than others. Maybe Dan heard me ramping up a new catalog of calamities—recovering from a more complicated hip surgery, training a new administrative assistant…
Paul pulls us away from getting stuck in our catalog of calamities and instead pushes us to recognize that pain, affliction and hardship are the very time and the exact place that we become ambassadors for Christ. In hardship our ego meets it match and it begins to let go—we cannot control it all, fix it all, nor do it all. In our pain, we crack open—we open our heart and our lives for the Spirit of Jesus to flow in so that we might become vessels for Christ—what Paul calls becoming “the righteousness of God.”
In the midst of our desolations, the Spirit of Jesus flows consolations into and through us, making us a messenger of the goodness of God. Our difficulties then become a witness to the goodness of God, rather than of how bad we got it. So following his catalog of calamities, Paul moves into the “series of spiritual gifts” he received through Christ when, in the midst of suffering, he was able to “Let go and Let God.” He received purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God with weapons of righteousness! Wow! If all that can come through hardship—sign me up! I need a double portion of all of those gifts.
When I went through our worst catalog of calamities, I was not broken, but I was broken open, and after being carried through that time by the Spirit of Jesus, and the love and help of so many people, I began to focus more on prayer and spiritual practices. My whole relationship with God changed and the focus of my ministry shifted. I began to study spirituality and focused on deepening my relationship with God so that I might begin to be an ambassador for Christ.
I suppose it’s good for my family to keep me humble and remind me that I am not yet there!
But this is our invitation in Lent. We can cry out to God and lament out difficulties. And then we can let our hardships soften our ego, release our control, and break us open, so that we can join Paul in trusting that even when in our hardships everything is unknown, we are known by God; and when we are dying, we are always alive in Christ; and when we are in pain, we are not separated from God; and when we are sorrowful, we can rejoice in Christ; and when we are poor, we are rich in Jesus; and when we have nothing, we possess everything we need in God.
So, welcome the Lenten journey and its self-examination, fasting, prayer, giving, and acts of love, so that in its desolation, you may experience the consolation of Christ, as Jesus makes you an ambassador for the goodness of God even now.