Vessel of grace

art 051992 was a bad year for Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. The Prince of Wales separated from Diana, whose de facto autobiography, published that same year, depicted her as a betrayed, self-mutilating bulimic. Sarah, the recently estranged wife of her other son, the Duke of York, appeared in the tabloids topless, having her toes nibbled by an enthusiastic “financial advisor.” The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, divorced. The popularity of the royal family declined measurably. And to top it all off, the home her ancestors had occupied for nearly 1,000 years, Windsor Castle, almost burned down. She called it her annus horribilis, her “horrible year.”

Recently I thought I would trump all of that with my own horrible year. Two weeks ago I suffered a stroke, from which I am apparently completely recovered. Although the year is less than half gone, and hasty judgments often prove faulty, it appears it’s turning out to be not my horrible year but my year of blessing.

The event seems to have left no lasting physical effects, but I’m assessing the effects on my psyche. My quick recovery seems to have been a nearly undiluted blessing, especially because neither the doctors nor I have any explanation for its cause or for my recovery. It also left me oddly hungry for blessings I have only tasted but have not fully received, blessings that are harvested only in suffering.

One of those blessings is a deeper bond with others, a deeper sense of community with those who’ve had similar experiences. For my thirty years as a pastor people have been telling me of their experience of stroke. Now I share a little of their experience, and I feel a greater affection for them and a more authentic human connection with them.

The powerful bond of suffering, even vicarious suffering, is what galvanized so much community support around Ben Sauer and his family during Ben’s illness and death. That same bond is available between any two people who recognize the common experience of suffering in life, whatever the reason.

Community forms in many ways. It can begin around similar interests, shared questions or curiosities, common needs or goals. However, there’s something different about community built around shared suffering, when we stop trying to avoid it or escape it and become truly present to it. In it I’m discovering more of myself and greater availability to others in what feels like authentic community. I’m also finding a surprising new abundance of life. Suffering makes that possible in ways nothing else has.

“Like living stones,” Peter wrote, “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5). It’s his invitation to spiritual community, living relationships in which the Spirit of God dwells uniquely. Stones for a building must be quarried, hewn, and shaped with hammer and chisel if they’re to fit together well. That’s also true for people who are being built into a spiritual house, and it’s accomplished most effectively with the chisel of suffering. Our lives fit together best and most enduringly when they’ve been shaped and prepared by suffering.

St. Paul once prayed that his suffering might leave him, until he learned it was enough to have God’s grace in the midst of his suffering and that his greatest and truest strength was found in his weakness; that his true fullness was found not in his accomplishments but in his emptiness; that the perfection of his relationship with God was realized not in his abilities but in his suffering. “Therefore I am content with [these things],” he wrote; “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:1-10).

When I began suffering my stroke two weeks ago, almost immediately I thought how different my life was about to be. It was not a pleasant prospect. I had in mind the physical damage and limitations I was going to have to live with if I survived. Although those things haven’t followed, my life is different, nevertheless, and what’s ahead of me is a beautiful and hopeful prospect. One momentary glimpse into the darkness of suffering showed me that, even if there’s not enough light to see clearly, there still is good in there.

Admittedly, I had only the briefest of glimpses. I don’t have to live with it daily the way many others do to a far greater degree. I haven’t had the hard, chronic experience of suffering some of you have had. I don’t know how I would react if my stroke had been severely and permanently debilitating.

All I can say is that with the prospect of the kind of suffering associated with a stroke, I was also given the prospect of greater grace in relationships. It was a sense of being drawn into a deeper spiritual intimacy with others that must be what it feels like to be joined with other living stones into a spiritual house, shaped and prepared by the hammer and chisel of suffering, to be part of the vessel in which God’s Spirit dwells.

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