Monday, June 05, 2006

Journeying from Eden to Heaven

'Journeying from Eden to Heaven' was delivered at the Headstart Leaders' Spiritual Retreat, 16-18 September 2005. It is part 4 in a series of 4 reflections under the title 'Come Away With Me'.

Medical textbooks are rife with definitions of pain. The American Society of Anesthesiologists define it as an unpleasant sensory or emotional experience, associated with actual or potential damage, or described in the terms of such damage. You mean like a slap in the face, or a dagger in the heart? Nice.

Life is painful. There is no escaping it. At best we are making things bearable. Antibiotics, air-conditioning, clean water – all have made living a little better, but there is no running away from the pain of being alive.

Since the day we were expunged from Eden, nothing about being alive is pain-free. We have lost the the easy care-free joy of abundance, and enjoying all of creation as a gift – everything we need we have to sweat and bleed for. We no longer enjoy the unbroken fellowship with our Creator, and all our relationships are marred with jealousy, anger, self-centred demands. The same fallen people populate churches, so it is no mystery that we have problems there, if not more glaringly so. But though we have been banished from Eden, Eden has never left our bosoms. We will always be homesick for a better reality and our best technology and psychotherapy will not end suffering.

Every day is painful – waking up is hard, clients are hard, bosses are worse. Small things hurt us – a snigger, an unreturned phone call, unreciprocated smile. Just when we thought we got things together, something big comes along and whops us on the side of the head – a close relative dies, you crash your car, a lawyer sends you a threatening letter. Shit happens. Murphy’s law works overtime. If we are honest with ourselves, though, the greatest pain of all is loneliness. And we are all lonely. Deeply, achingly, intractably lonely.

None of our aspirations for spiritual advancement get very far because all our neat formulas and plans simply fall apart. Our progress is derailed. Our attentions are diverted to self-preservation. Our joy is sapped and life becomes dreary and mere survival is all we can hope for.

As a physician, I appreciate what pain does for the patient. Without it, patients would never turn up to have their medical condition investigated. The pattern of pain tells us the likely cause. And pain gives us a useful way to monitor the severity of the problem and how it's responding to our treatment.

I can see two major schools of thought in approaching psychological/emotional pain in Christian circles. One – is to deny it, steel yourself with verses about faith and the pure joy of trials and march on like good Christian soldiers singing ‘It’s a happy day’ all the way. Crabb remarks: ‘common in fundamentalist circles, (this approach) crushes the soul under the weight of academic truth and proud obedience.’ The second – is to palliate it. Find every possible means to relieve our pain. Indulge our desires, enjoy the creaturely comforts, furnish our homes with pretty things and taste the best this world has to offer. Neither are in touch with reality. No amount of denial will take away suffering, and no amount of partying will satisfy our hungers.

Larry Crabb in his insightful book, ‘Finding God’, shows us we have a choice to make: either we try to rebuild/recapture Eden in our lives, or make our pilgrimage towards Heaven. He contrasts Lamech and Enoch, both the 7th generation progeny of Cain and Abel. He says:
‘Lamech declared: “I will build my city! I want my pleasures now.” Enoch said: “I will build God’s kingdom! And trust God to one day build a city for me to enjoy.” Because God cares deeply about his children, many times he chooses to relieve our suffering and solve our problems. But because his love is.. rooted in what he knows is best for us, he provides us with something more interesting to live for than ourselves. He catches us up in the supernatural reality of living for an eternal kingdom.’

David Seamands tells us to 'choose our pain' - the pain of grumbling and fighting it, or the pain of understanding it and allowing God to do his healing work and propel us towards heaven. Henri Nouwen suggests that we turn pain from an enemy into a friend. Instead of pouring all our efforts into eliminating pain as quickly as possible, we can befriend it, listen to it, and let it speak to us of our deepest need and of God's presence in our pain. That way, both our highest pleasures and deepest pain point us forward to God and Heaven. A fantastic Mamak Rojak or Thai dish becomes a foretaste of glory, driving me forward, not an obsession with the world, cementing my feet in a perishing world. The most teeth-grinding of hurts and frustrations propel me to look further, they become engines of growth and not excuses for narcissistic self massage.

C.S. Lewis once said: ‘If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.’ We have a greater purpose than fixing this life, it is to know God and enjoy Him. Pardon for our sin is more important than immediate healing for our pain. The chief end of man is to glorify him, it is not the chief end of God to gratify man. Our focus must shift from finding ourselves or making life better, to finding God who is constantly chasing after us.

The lessons of David and Job teach us that. Pain is the ever-present vehicle that drives us to our God. The equation is not about how much pain we suffered vs how much relief/deliverance we received. It is about how much of our unbelief is eroded and how much of God we come to know for ourselves. But these lessons begin with brutal honesty. We must dare to ask, ‘Where are you God when it hurts? What kind of God are you to allow this kind of pain in my life? Why should I worship you?’ Who knows how he will answer you.

The invitation to ‘Come… with me by yourselves and rest for awhile’ is repeated over and over again in our lives – that we find rest. Rest from the abdicating distractions and anxieties of the world. Rest from the paralyzing sins of our past. Rest from the illusions of who we really are. Yet our ultimate rest is in heaven – where there will be no weeping or crying. Every little Sabbath we take is a small step towards the great Sabbath Rest. And while this journey is often bitterly painful, it is precisely this pain that drives us forward and enlarges our hearts for the Lover of our souls.

Reflection & Dialog:
1. What are the biggest sources of pain in your life?
2. What do they tell you about yourself, your needs, your passions/commitments?
3. Come to God with your pain and speak honestly with Him about it.

Part 1 - The Tragedy of Restlesness
Part 2 - Coming into the Present
Part 3 - Return to the True Self
Part 4 - Journeying from Eden to Heaven


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