The Practice of Feeling Pain {Book Club}

Quick question before we start. What would you like to read in February? We’ve got the memoir When I Fell Down by Kay Brunner for January and will be reading Expectations and Burnout in March and April. I was thinking about something light and fun. A novel maybe? Anything you’ve been wanting to read? Or think would be good for a group discussion?

And now for an awkward segway from a light read in February to today’s practice from  An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor: The Practice of Feeling Pain.

Or does it have to be awkward? Have I just done what comes naturally to most of us? Put pain over there and fun over here, keeping them tidily separate. But life isn’t so tidy, is it?

This week’s theme is birth and whether you’ve physically birthed a child or not, we all know a thing or two about pain and joy intermingled when it comes to birth.

Frankly, I’d rather park here and talk about birth than turn and lean into the topic of pain. Pain hurts and so often I feel helpless in the face of it, whether my own physical pain or the pain of others. I also feel annoyed and, truth be told, taken advantage of (by God? by the enemy? by just the realities of living in a fallen world? Not sure.) because of the inconvenience of pain and her results. Who likes to have to alter plans and ways I want to do life or spend my time?

After a fairly severe car accident in Beijing years ago the European doctor’s words have stuck with me and stood the test of time and memory. “You haven’t broken anything, but tomorrow you’re going to feel like (colorful language).” Though he used a word I don’t tend to use, I wanted to say, “Thank you.” Thank you for calling it like it is and not down playing what had happened.

In this chapter I appreciated the amount of time Barbara camped on Job. What have you found helpful or confusing in Job or her take on Job and God?

I starred where Barbara distinguished between pain and suffering. “Pain originates in the body. Pain happens in the flesh. Suffering, on the other hand, happens in the mind. The mind decides what pain means and whether it is deserved. the mind notices who comes to visit and who does not. The mind remembers how good things used to be and are not likely to be again. The mind makes judgments, measures loss, takes blame, and assigns guilt.”

Before you went to the field or during your orientation to the field, how much time was invested in developing or exploring your theology of suffering? Based on your experiences (good, bad, ugly, all welcome!) what suggestions do you have? We can begin to be the change we want to see happen.

Maybe more importantly to pre-field orientation is now, where you are, on the field or on home assignment or wherever. How has what you’ve experienced informed and shaped your understanding and relationship with suffering?

This is hard for me to engage with right now. A person I love got shocking news Friday and instead of their suffering being relieved, it is worse then we ever imagined. I was standing in a store when the text came and I started to shake. And then cry. And then reach out to people for support and prayer.

“There will always be people who run from every kind of pain and suffering, just as there will always be religions that promise to put them to sleep. For those willing to stay awake, pain remains a reliable altar in the world, a place to discover that life can be as full of meaning as it is of hurt. The two have never canceled each other out and I doubt they ever will, at least not until each of us- or all of us together — find the way through.”

Instead of running from it, let’s run to each other.  I have a lot to say on pain and suffering :), but I’d like to talk with you about it. How does pain and suffering interact with your ability to trust God, others, and yourself? When you were a kid could you cry when you were hurt? What kind of messages did you get about pain and suffering and how did they prepare you for adulthood and the field?

Grab a cup and let’s chat. I enjoy these talks, thanks for commenting :),


P.S. Next week we’ll looking at the Practice of  Being Present to God

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  1. Hallie December 15, 2014

    I feel like I found a heart-friend in Barbara’s writing. I have been on the field for 7 years and I am in the deepest pain I have ever experienced. In her book “Leaving Church” I highlighted

    “I carried with me all the stories I had heard that day, from the young woman who had just discovered that the baby she carried inside of her was deformed to the old man who had just lost his wife of 57 years. I knew that I would hear more such stories the next day, and the day after that, with no healing power but the power of listening at my command”

    In all my 4 years of Bible college, in my orientation, nothing came close to preparing me for how deeply I would hurt. And in the faith culture of that group, if you experience this level of pain, MY  perspective was that means my “faith is weak” or “I don’t trust God” or “I doubt my calling”. I have always been the “strong one” the “brave one” and it is utterly, utterly strange to fall this hard, to be this “weak”, and yet know so deeply that God loves me, and will walk through this with me.

    I am so excited about this discussion, and I am REALLY excited about doing “When I Fell Down” next month!

    1. Amy Young December 16, 2014

      What’s so at odds with “weak faith” or “doubt” or “lack of trust” is that Jesus himself was known as the Suffering Servant and The Man of Sorrows. I suppose some would say he had them to a “respectable” level. Hallie, I wish I alleviate the suffering you’re experiencing (probably in the ways you wish you could alleviate the pain you’re seeing in others). Maybe in a small way, just saying “I see you and your pain” as we turn towards you and not ignore it, will help bear it.

      At some point in the future, your suffering will not be in vain. I don’t know how God will use it, but I trust he will. What do you wish your faith tradition would say to you? And other suffering?

  2. T December 16, 2014

    Amy, can we read something free in February?  Like something that is on Project Gutenberg or other(public domain stuff)?  We don’t have to, but that is my gut suggestion.

    1. Phyllis December 16, 2014

      That would be nice for me, too.

    2. Amy Young December 16, 2014

      I’m looking 🙂 … right now I’m finding a lot of dark, long stuff. What was in about a 100 years ago is not what’s in currently! Good for us to read it! Just saying … it sure is a different style!

      1. Amy Young December 16, 2014

        OK, I loved “An Enchanted April” by Elizabeth Von Arnim — and found “The Pastor’s Wife” on Project Guttenberg. It got good reviews on “Goodreads” — so I think I’ll pick that and maybe one other short one. Thanks for the idea T!

        1. T December 17, 2014

          anytime, Amy, anytime!  😉

  3. Sally December 16, 2014

    One struggle I have with suffering is I want to negotiate the terms (like how long will go on) with God. Then I get mad when He doesn’t answer my prayers how I want him too. For the last 5 nights I’ve been watching my daughter cough until she throws up over and over. We’ve been to the doctor and the ER and we’re trying everything we can, but still it goes on. It’s excruciating. She has suffered a lot physically in her life. I still ask why. I still ask for it to stop. We haven’t slept well in a week and it’s hard to hear God & see Him in this current fog exhaustion and 24-hours-a-day job of caring for your sick, asthmatic child.

    1. Shelly December 16, 2014

      Sally, I am so sorry to hear about your pain as you watch your child suffer. I have no “fix it” words, and I know you are not looking for them. Our Sufficient One is also the With-Us One who knows the suffering you and your child are experiencing. I ask Him to give strength and peace, to bring healing and rest.

    2. Amy Young December 16, 2014

      Sally I find myself nodding yes, yes, yes.  I, too, have terms. Funny you bring this up. On Sunday I was invited to “share” my story with a group and when I got to the part where I was seriously ill and nearly died — I was willing to go through the pain and awfulness if it meant revival for those I’d come to serve (seemed dramatic an in line with “BIG” stories I’d heard). But revival didn’t happen. Instead, my restoration was attributed more to my privilege of being able to afford medicine (and that is not a wrong interpretation, just not the one I like the most!). However, when I went home on a short break — good night, but my supporters couldn’t stop touching me.

      God said, “OK, you were willing to go through that for a certain group, are you willing to go through it for a group you didn’t choose?” The supposedly right answer was yes, but the real answer was NO.

      I’m thinking of you and your daughter. If I could I’d pop by and let you lay down and rest while I watch your daughter. But I can’t. So, like Shelly, may these words be a small stone of remembrance you are not alone. Your current suffering is noticed by us.

    3. T December 17, 2014

      Oh, Sally!  Praying for you!  My dad used to always tell me that he wished he could trade places with me and take the pain away.  I’m sure you feel the same way for your little one!  Aaargh.  Praying that those lungs heal and all infection/virus/allergens/irritants are removed.

  4. Shelly December 16, 2014

    What I thought was really valuable in the chapter was the point that we cannot really understand another person’s pain or grief. I know that pain scale from all the years I have been in physical therapy or under the care of chiropractors. I also know that I have compared recent pain to past pain to figure out which number is most accurate. I am sure I do the same thing with suffering. Is this really as bad as that thing last year? Maybe it is, but I don’t feel (or interpret) it the same way. What flattened me a few years ago might only cause me to lose my footing now. I have changed. But I don’t think I notice these changes alone, I need my community to help me see me as I go through pain and suffering. (Oh, the great need for community!) So, even though they cannot know my suffering, they can listen (thanks for sharing that quote Hallie) and observe, and in time relate to me what they see and how they feel in my presence as I suffer. This has happened to me, and I have learned things about myself that I didn’t know–good things. It did not lessen the suffering/grief, but it brought encouragement along the journey.

    1. Amy Young December 16, 2014

      Shelly, I found myself saying yes, yes, yes here too :). AND this is why I love reading in community — we each notice or resonate with different parts and when we offer them to the group, then I notice them too :).  The power/importance of interpretation when it comes to pain/suffering. I’ve heard that perception determines reality, so it doesn’t matter if I think what someone has gone through it suffering, if they think it is, I need to honor that (not saying there might not be an opening to dialogue about it, but I think we can be too quick to jump in with “correcting” — or so-called encouragement that is veiled correcting.

      And also yes to the importance of community when it comes to suffering. The aforementioned suffering of a loved one — his community, is lovingly reminding him of who he is in light of false accusation. Community has helped me too — though I also recognize it can be a two edged sword. Some reading this I know have had their suffering come at the hands of a community.

      Still, at it’s purist, community was meant for our good and as a reflection of the trinity. Thanks Shelly!

      1. Shelly December 16, 2014

        Amy, you are so right that suffering can come at the hands of community, so the interpretation and response that I describe really must come with much humility and spiritual wisdom. I have been an agent of suffering in an effort to interpret what God was doing in a friend’s life.

        I have not often asked directly for other people’s observations while in the midst of significant suffering, though I have asked for it when I just wasn’t happy being with me. If am suffering being with me, then others just might be, so I could learn from how they are experiencing me. On one such occasion, a friend answered very honestly how she was experiencing me, and it pricked my heart because it was sooooo true; I knew it deep in my soul. It was not a way I wanted to be, but I felt stuck there. She did not correct, but made herself available to help in any way that I thought would help. Her acceptance of me in the midst of suffering was the help I needed.

    2. Jenny December 18, 2014

      Really insightful, Shelly!  I had never considered the role of community in processing our suffering.  As I sit with this idea I feel so alone because I have not had consistent community and I have longed for it.  Now I feel like this is one more part of things I’ve missed out on.  It rings true to me, and i’m continuing to ask for community and hope for finding that in our new stage of life here.

  5. Elizabeth December 16, 2014

    “For reasons not entirely clear, Job is satisfied with this answer.” So much in this chapter that hit me, and I think much of it has been addressed already. But this statement about Job being ok with a scolding from God and with not knowing all the answers, I think it is very profound. It’s one of those experiences you can’t borrow from someone else, or lend to someone else.

    The WRESTLING with pain and suffering, with where God is in the mess, that is highly personalized, and how one person comes to peace over suffering and God’s sovereignty is not necessarily how another person will. Because each experience is so individual, and God talks to us so individually, that what satisfies one person will not satisfy another. So we have to enter the boxing ring ourselves, so to speak, to find any resolution at all. We can’t depend on someone else’s resolution. Not that there is always true resolution, but there can be acceptance, as with Job.

    1. Amy Young December 17, 2014

      Elizabeth, this is beautiful and true! That line also stood out to me.

      This discussion reminds me of the importance of creating space and freedom for people to walk different paths. This weekend I was sharing with a group and they asked about my family. It was one of those moments truth comes out of your mouth you know what not from you :). I said “my sisters and I are all very, very different people. I think God places us in families to show he values relationship over sameness.” As I read your comment, I realize I’m far more drawn to sameness (same reaction, same outrage, same opinion) than I often think I am. Thanks for helping me see myself more clearly and will need to do some talking with God about this! 🙂

  6. Jenny December 18, 2014

    I was particularly struck by the idea of pain/suffering erasing most of what I thought I knew about myself.  I have had a rough go of it in different ways the past few years and have been surprised both by strength and weakness I didn’t know God had put within me.

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