“Zero? How could I get a ZERO?”
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a spiritually enthusiastic, minstry-minded teenager and had just taken a spiritual gifts inventory test in preparation to go on a short term missions trip. I carefully bubbled in my answers, and we had just gone through the convoluted math of tallying our scores.
And there it was. I had scored a big fat zero on the gift of “Mercy.”
Now, I realize that we all have different giftings, and that spiritual gifts inventory tests™ are likely not entirely accurate, but the fact that I scored absolutely NO points in the area of mercy concerned me, especially because it did kind of ring true in the way I structured my life.
If I was honest, even at that young age I made every effort in the world to avoid situations where I would have to interact with the grieving, the sick, or the hurting, and I continued to do so for many years to come. And when I had to spend time with people in pain, I would feel self-conscious and tongue-tied and anxious, unsure of what to say or do.
I used to think I avoided sufferers because I was fundamentally uncompassionate (and had spiritual gifts test results to prove it!), but later realized it was because I was terribly, terribly afraid. Terrified of grappling with my mind-bending, heart-rending, life-long questions I had about the presence of evil and the existence of a good God.
Do you have these questions too?
“At its heart, theodicy is the longing for a God who notices our suffering, who cares enough to act, and who will make all things new. It is an ache that cannot be shaken, which we all share deep in our bones and carry with us every day–and every night.” (Tish Harrison Warren)
When I encountered people experiencing pain, it forced me to come face to face with my own bone-deep ache, feeling the fallenness of the world and own my finitude. I didn’t have the answers. I usually couldn’t fix anything for them. And it called into question my belief of God and his goodness in ways that I didn’t start sorting out until decades later when my own pain couldn’t be avoided anymore.
In 2018, the slow train of normal human health problems and aging I thought I was on suddenly became a roller coaster that was plummeting at a hundred miles an hour. My health slipped through my fingers like sand as I watched with dread. My prayers seemed to hit the ceiling fan and fall back down on my already migraine-addled head. Eventually, when I tried to pray, all I could do was cry (the raging, then surrendering, would come later). Where was God in the wilderness of my brain-fogged, dizzy days? In my seemingly endless pain-filled sleepless nights? I cast around for answers, ashamed that perhaps I had missed something in my Sunday school or seminary training, had been absent on the day we had discussed the solution to the problem of pain. It seemed easier to numb the pain with distraction: constant productivity, constant input (articles, social media, podcasts, oh my!), constant running from the problem of pain.
But the Spirit of God led me back to the epicenter of my questions about pain in order to bring the healing. As Job and Ecclesiastes said so many years ago and yet it still took thirty one years for me to grasp–there are no answers to be found on earth. Only mystery, and the presence of Love. And somehow that is enough to create endurance and to enable us to be present with pain–both our own and other people’s–rather than run from it.
Letting go–at long last–of my list of questions and learning to instead breathe in the mysterious but ever-present love of God that came to find me even in my darkest days has been revolutionary for me. It has also completely changed the way I view and do ministry.
As I reconstruct models for spiritual growth and ministry in the wake of the hurricane of my own head-on collision with pain, several books have been helpful to me, but I think I now have a favorite one that happens to be brand new. I ordered a review copy of Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren read and report on for you because ministry among immigrants is necessarily ministry that involves caring for people who have experienced and/or are experiencing suffering and loss and all of the painful emotional fallout that goes along with those things. And the best thing we can do as those who care about immigrants is to be present with them, walking with them even through pain and suffering, without retreating out of fear or discomfort.
From the back: “Framed around the nighttime prayer of Compline, Tish Harrison Warren explores a season of doubt and loss, navigating themes of human vulnerability, suffering and God’s seeming absence. She writes that practices of prayer ‘gave words to my anxiety and grief and allowed me to reencounter the doctrines of the church not as tidy little antidotes for pain, but as light in the darkness, as good news.’”
I could start sharing my favorite quotes here, but I won’t, because I pretty much highlighted the whole book, and because I really, really think you should just order this one and read it for yourself.
Read it in order to be a good friend to immigrant friends going through hard times, but also read it with an eye towards preparing for or processing your own suffering, knowing that developing a heart that leans into (rather than runs away from) mystery and is softened (rather than hardened) by hard circumstances is the very thing that will open you to opportunities to serve as both a joyful receiver and a humble conduit of ever-present Love and mercy to those around you in ways you may have never experienced before.
At least that’s what’s happening for formerly “0% Mercy” me.