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Holy Week: Go toward the pain

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By Martin Elfert 

Jesus is always on the side of the crucified ones. He changes sides in the twinkling of an eye to go wherever the pain is. He is not loyal to one religion, to this or that group, or to the worthy; Jesus is only and always loyal to human suffering.

–  Richard Rohr

About 15 years ago, someone I love was enduring a time of depression. The depression wasn’t radical – my friend was able to go to work and engage in social events and otherwise function and find some joy in life – but it was chronic, lasting several years. As my friend’s depression deepened, so did her neediness and her tendency to behave in a petulant or a manipulative fashion. As a consequence, spending time with her became exhausting. And so (and I am ashamed to admit this), I began to avoid her. I wasn’t the only one.

What came next reminded me of a public address system feeding back on itself, of that fingernails-on-chalkboard experience in which the sound coming out of the speakers is picked up by a microphone which, in turn, sends the sound back to the speakers so that, pretty soon, the whole room is just screaming. As more and more folks began dodging my friend, her behavior became more needy and more petulant and more manipulative. And thus many of us became even more determined to avoid her.

That insidious cycle ended only when someone made the brave and difficult choice to walk right into the middle of my friend’s pain, to sit with her, to listen to her, to confront her about her behavior, to love her. The transformation that followed was startling and beautiful. Today, my friend is vital and engaged with life and a whole lot of fun to hang out with. I’m grateful for that. And I regret that I left the hard work of extending compassion to her to someone else.

Jesus, Richard Rohr says, goes “wherever the pain is.” And there are times when I suspect that Rohr’s simple and awesome statement might just sum up the entire Gospel. When people are enduring illness, Jesus is there. When people are hungry, Jesus is there. When people are lonely, Jesus is there. When people are faced with injustice, Jesus is there. Scripture gives us one story after another of Jesus going straight towards the pain.

As we sit on the cusp of Holy Week, I am wondering if we might understand the last days of Jesus’ life through the lens of Rohr’s words. In his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus makes the wondrous and irrevocable decision to go towards the pain; he declares that there is no pain from which he will run; he proclaims with his life and his death that he will not avoid pain, even when the cost of going towards it is suffering and grief and loss. And in doing so, Jesus makes a promise to you and to me: no matter how deep your pain is, I am there. I am with you.

To the best of my knowledge, the person who went towards my friend’s pain doesn’t self-identify as a Christian. But there is little question in my mind that, when he chose courage and love over safety and comfort, when he became the catalyst that allowed my friend to change her life and escape her depression, he was behaving in a Christ-like fashion. I don’t know if he had a plan when he waded into her pain. But I do know that he went towards it, towards her. I do know that he said, I am here.

May this Holy Week be an invitation to you and to me to go towards the pain. May we be Jesus’ partners in transforming that pain. May we allow that pain to transform us. May we help to prepare the way for resurrection.

About Martin Elfert

Martin Elfert
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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One comment

  1. Pastor Deb Conklin

    What a deeply thoughtful reflection for Holy Week. Thank you Martin!!