Pain can come to anyone, anytime: you, me, someone on the globe's other end, your neighbor, your friend. Jesus' sufferings prove this with clarity and simplicity. If the God-man would not avoid pain–the human who had a unique capacity to avoid it–then no one will.
God made this world–this world, crisscrossed with pains–and he appointed its sufferings and deaths as appropriate responses to our destructive wills. They are part of his plan, not slips, not mistakes. He warned about them, instituted them, mourns them, allows them, and He shared in them personally. Because he's beside us in the middle of pain and because he's always directing it toward redemption, we can endure it. We can even call our sufferings "blessed." We can say that pain is a good response to a horrible thing. We can use it to "follow Christ." We can join both Peter and Paul as they tell us all to "rejoice in our sufferings."
But none of these transformative truths change the simple fact that pain is painful. Paul's joy is not in contradiction to the sting of his suffering; it's in relationship with it. Christ's love doesn't eliminate the solitude of pain; it accompanies it. Pain remains what it is: painful.
I'm not lapsing into tautologies here. I'm saying that pain's abstract, theological, and cosmological characteristics must and do coincide with the way it feels. Both the agony of pain and its place in God's redemption are true, and God spends plenty of time caring about both of them. So should we. They go together.
In the past few issues, we've spent time saying that when we are in the middle of pain we usually need solidarity and comfort more than we need theodicies or explanations. We need to tend to the agony of pain, rather than to the knowledge of its place in God's redemption. It’s almost only when we're getting ready to feel pain that explanations are helpful. We should understand pain before we experience it.
So: if you're going to experience pain (and, yes, it's likely), prepare yourself by thinking about it and by exploring stories that represent it well.
But there is more to our preparation for pain, our endurance toward it. As Christians, we're called to tend to others' pain as much as to our own, and maybe more than our own. And the way to prepare for other people's pain–for a friend's pain or a neighbor's pain–is by preparing to offer them tangible comfort. Prepare yourself with stories of redemption through pain. Prepare for others by stocking up on band-aids and ice cream. Know what soothes the people nearby and each person you love, and then have that stuff on hand, ready to deploy. Keep extra vases, an inflatable mattress, soft peppermints, stationery, some fifty-dollar bills. Become constantly poised to respond to a neighbor's thirst with a cup of cool water.
This is the kind of readiness that characterizes hopeful, loving people who nevertheless see pain with honest clarity. They know that going through pain is very likely, and they also know that everything’s going to be OK. They’re honest comforters.
So far, I’ve given examples of things almost anyone could do to prepare for others’ pain, but I’m writing to you–to leaders in churches and schools and Christian organizations–so I want to focus on an application of the duty I’m describing that’s uniquely possible in your positions. I want to encourage you to let your compassion and generosity swell to an organizational level as well as a personal one, to aspire to expressions of comfort that only communities can effect.
Such an ambition, once accepted, could produce many good results–funds to alleviate short-term financial needs, rapidly-mobilizable construction teams, community gardens, free concerts, organized visitation staffs, food banks–but there’s a particular one on which I’d like to focus. I want to talk about the spaces you oversee, about how they can be an integral part of your ministry to hurting people. I want to encourage you to envision them–youth rooms, sanctuaries, chapels, classrooms, homes–as spaces that could be places of refuge, sanctuary, comfort.
Christian spaces are, I think, uniquely suited to becoming places of refuge, both because of the way God’s people have thought of them ever since Adam and Eve were sent out of a garden or since God offered Abraham a land, and because of the way in which spaces are innately suited to achieving Christian goals.
The Christian story has ministry through places woven throughout it:
Places: Our race mourns the loss of a beautiful garden, and it hopes for a beautiful city.
Places: In the middle of his redemptive work, God offered his people a beautiful land, and called for that land to be filled with safe havens for prayer and shelter from attack or litigation. He wrote located, tangible care for the poor and grieving into his social code.
Places: For centuries, churches were destinations for the endangered or poor to find sanctuary and aid, and to experience free beauty. Later, pious people founded the charitable organizations, orphanages, safe homes, and food banks that saved so many from the oppressions brought on by the industrial revolution.
Both God and his people have been continuously eager to turn their spaces into places that comfort and serve those in pain. God describes the comfort he will offer his people in terms of a beautiful place:
O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted,
behold, I will set your stones in antimony,
and lay your foundations with sapphires.
I will make your pinnacles of agate,
your gates of carbuncles,
and all your wall of precious stones.
All your children shall be taught by the Lord,
and great shall be the peace of your children.
In righteousness you shall be established;
you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear;
and from terror, for it shall not come near you.
Places have always been an important part of God’s ministry to those in pain, and it's good for us to join him in that mission. The imitation of God’s work in our ministry is the primary reason for us to make our spaces into places of refuge, but it’s not the only one. God has comforted his people in this way because it makes good sense. It’s fitting. Places are inherently suited to minister to people’s pain.
There’s a lot that could be said about this idea, and a lot that has been said. (For a good start, explore Biola University’s series of events and lectures on the theme of Sacred Space, like this lecture by Roberta Ahmanson.) But here I want to focus on four specific ideas that emphasize the ways in which places can enable ministry like nothing else does.
1. Public, available beauty is ministry, and places or pictures are ongoing investments in beauty.
We bring flowers to hurting people because we believe that beauty is restorative. It helps, it heals somehow. Experiences of beauty place our pain in a bigger context without being intrusive or assertive or preachy. They help us to hope and to keep our hurts at their proper sizes.
This restorative capacity of beauty has held true for me across many media. When I’ve been in pain, lovely music, delicious friend-made food, or hilltop sunsets have all nourished me. When my friends are in pain, I try to give them gifts of beauty that they can see, smell, taste, touch, or hear, keeping in mind what gifts they’ll appreciate. You should try to create all sorts of different kinds of beauty for hurting people through your organization. Public, available beauty is strategic ministry.
But visual, spatial beauty has a special characteristic that excites me: unlike sounds, smells, and tastes, it doesn’t go away after an initial encounter with it. By making visually, spatially beautiful places, Christians can make enduring, quiet ministries to the shifting pains of the people nearby. This is a kind of beauty that doesn’t require re-scheduling or restocking, one that can be available at just the right time for any unpredicted pain. That’s important if we believe that pain could come to anyone, anytime. It means that we can be ever-ready.
2. Places can communicate safety.
I don’t entirely know why this is, but getting up and changing locations frequently allows for welcome changes in emotion, in purpose, or in motivation. There’s something about “leaving” a state of mind or heart somewhere, or “taking up” a state of being from somewhere else. I should know: this article took about 10 changes of location to get written.
Moving somewhere can particularly help people who are experiencing the solitude and fear that characterize pain. Knowing that there’s a place at which they are welcome to seek refuge and comfort can be deeply helpful, even when it isn’t visited. It says soothingly, “Somewhere nearby, you are welcome and safe.”
3. Sometimes people in pain both need and shrink from human companionship, and an intentional place can simultaneously provide both community and solitude.
In my last Examined Life article, I talked about the solitude that accompanies pain. Hurting people are, in some very real senses, alone, and sometimes external solitude helps to give them a sense of harmony or truth that they dearly want. Yet it’s also true that solitude can be dangerous to a person in pain. Sometimes the last thing we want, human company, is the very thing we need.
Man-made, comforting places are uniquely suited to meet both of these needs at once. When you enter into a space that’s been carefully built and adorned by loving, compassionate people, you get to be, in some sense, surrounded by them, even if you’re alone. Christian places of refuge can simultaneously offer Christian community and honest solitude. There isn’t too much else that can. Not usually the hurting person’s home, and certainly not Starbucks.
4. Places can tell stories or express theologies, and theologies that can be experienced, seen, or entered into unite the two ways of interacting with pain: pain as felt, and pain as understood.
Let me remind you of two things we said at the beginning of this article: that pain has two parts that go together–the way it feels and the way it fits into God’s big plan–and that when we’re in pain, it’s hard to think about that second part.
That doesn’t mean we’re closed off to the way pain fits into God’s big plan when we’re feeling it, however. People in pain can still be receptive to quiet reminders of God’s redemption–especially if they’re the sort of people who have prepared for pain by thinking about it–and places with visual and spatial components that have been arranged with those reminders in mind can present them with unobtrusive simplicity. A beautiful place that somehow images man’s fall, Christ’s sufferings, his resurrection, and our coming hope in its walls can be a place of both deep and meaningful comfort.
I’ll make a few practical notes to close.
Firstly, churches have traditionally been considered best for this kind of project, but I just don’t think we shouldn’t let them have all the fun. A youth room, or a youth room’s corner, could take these principles and adopt them too. A classroom at lunchtime could become a deeply comforting place. A guestroom would do.
Secondly, a project like this requires long-term investment and some real resources because it’s meant to be a long-term ministry. In other words, if you pursue it, pursue it well, with a bit of re-budgeting. As you’re seeking it, however, keep in mind that you’re attempting to make your places beautiful and deep not for glory’s sake, but for service’s. That’ll change what you do and the way you do it.
Lastly, I want to stress a word I’ve repeated throughout this article: available. This ministry won’t be a ministry if people don’t have access to it. You must find ways to clearly communicate your place’s availability to anyone who may experience pain. In other words, to everyone. Further, you should think about finding ways to get it opened up for people who have a sudden need. I’m pretty sure that this consideration was one of the main reasons that parsonages were often on church property. If you don’t have one, or yours isn’t there, you might need to get creative.
I don’t think that the creation of places of refuge is a universal Christian mandate (or anything close to it), but I do understand it to be a very great good, a very God-like service, and a means to achieving aims of ministry that I don’t know how to achieve in any comparable ways. You, leaders, needn’t make them, but insofar as ministering to people’s pain is a piece of your goals, it could be very, very good.
What I Learned From My Mother
by Julia Kasdorf
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pear
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn't know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever I say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another's suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.