The Journey Through Brokenness – February 22

Great Love and Great Suffering

This week, we will see Jesus begin to turn his attention toward a destination that ends in suffering and death. We, like Peter and the apostles, can’t bear the thought of someone we love intentionally walking to the place of suffering and death. When we love someone this much, we beg them to take any path but that one.

But the mystics teach us that great suffering is intricately interwoven into great love. I first encountered this idea in reading Henri Nouwen back in the first half of my ministry. He spoke the following in his teaching:

Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart. Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.

-Henri J.M. Nouwen

His work became foundational to my education, my ministry, and ultimately my own spiritual journey. Anyone who has lived long enough has learned the truth: if we risk giving our hearts to another, we can be assured that our hearts will be broken.

During the time when I was doing my doctoral work, I was blessed to have Dr. Tex Sample as one of my two key faculty members, and one of the things I loved about Tex was his capacity to tap into the profound wisdom of country western music and incorporate that into theological thought.

So as a true Texan raised on country music, I felt obligated to dig more deeply. One of the country singers who touched me deeply in that time was Garth Brooks, and the wisdom I am talking about here is the primary theme of The Dance. As he sings, he is reflecting upon how deeply he invested himself into a love that ultimately did not last. In the chorus, and the finale, he sings:

And now, I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end
The way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’da had to miss
The dance

It’s my life
It’s better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’da had to miss
The dance

-Garth Brooks, The Dance

When we love deeply, we will be called to the place of great suffering. I’ve read with interest the case of Alexei Navalny and his prosecution as an opponent of the Kremlin following his poisoning at the hands of Russian agents and his continued exposure of corruption in Russia. Navalny had spent much of his life as an atheist, but he has converted in recent years to Christianity. At his appeal and sentencing, he said, “To live fully is to risk it all.”

He understood that he could not be true to himself if he walked away from his love of his fellow Russians and the justice they deserve. His faith challenged him to speak truth to power … to challenge corruption. And that meant that he would experience suffering.

Jesus reminds us that suffering is now inevitable. Brokenness is something that comes to all of us. But the journey into the darkness … and subsequently out of the darkness … is best equipped by love … a love known as ἀγάπη (agape). It is the ultimate pouring out of self, and it is that image of pouring out that defines both great love and great suffering.

May your journey, my friends, be the pathway of love. When you experience great suffering, you will know you have walked the path that Christ walked.

Lord of Love: Come into our hearts and be with us as we take this journey through love and suffering. May it be a journey that connects us to you and one another as we walk this path. Amen.

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