Which is worse? Chronic pain or acute?
Which is worse? To live everyday with debilitating pain, or to suffer crippling pain only on occasion?
Which is worse? To be so accustomed to pain you hardly notice it anymore, or to be a stranger to pain, surprised when it strikes?
Which is worse? The question or the answer?
It is, perhaps, a silly exercise. No one would choose pain, of any sort. And, even if we had a choice, pain does not send us a survey, asking about the best way into our lives. Sudden or gradual? Site-specific or global? Lingering or intermittent? Daytime or nighttime?
What prompts this odd question, you ask? Here’s the thing.
I saw something in Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 1.9-15), I’d never seen before. Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Fresh from his baptism, three of the four gospel writers toss Jesus immediately into the wilderness for a sort of 40-day vision quest. The story is familiar to you, I’m sure.
But here’s what I noticed this year. In Mark’s gospel, the first and shortest of the gospels, Jesus is tested for the duration of his wilderness wanderings. For 40 days, Satan plagued him with unspecified trouble. What’s news about that? I had it in my head that Satan appeared only at the end of the 40 days, when Jesus was at his weakest. But that acute, sudden-onset testing occurs only in Matthew’s gospel. In both Mark and Luke, the testing is chronic, for the duration. Here’s what Mark writes, “Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.”
Apparently, the testing was endless. Like the torture that has since been declared illegal, in which the subject of torture is barraged day and night, sleep-deprived and starving, Satan never let up. For 40 days.
Yikes! Which would be worse? A steady drum beat of torture or an explosive burst? Like us, Jesus didn’t get to choose.
Though the specifics of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness are sketchy, I can’t help but compare his 40-day wilderness ordeal to our almost-12-month pandemic ordeal. For some of us, the trouble started a year ago and has not let up. In the first month of the pandemic, more than 20 million jobs were “lost;” most of those jobs have not been “found.” Millions of school children and teachers were tossed into Zoom Hell. Evictions started almost immediately, as otherwise-reliable renters were suddenly unable to make rent. We could describe their pandemic pain as chronic. Relentless. Endless.
Others have us have been largely untouched by the economic fallout of the pandemic, but suffer instead from isolation and anger, uncertainty and angst. Among this group, there is a fair amount of Survivor’s Guilt—aware that others are suffering, ashamed to be so consumed with their own, relatively modest discomfort. We could describe their pandemic pain as acute. Occasional. Surprising.
Are those our only choices? If Door #1 is chronic and endless pain, and Door #2 is acute and occasional pain, isn’t there a Door #3, a “no pain” path? Sadly, not. As a funeral director friend quips, “Nobody gets out of this life alive.” Same with pain and sorrow. They are equal opportunity offenders.
Ask Jesus. He knew both, as well. Tortured by Satan for 40 days at the beginning of the gospel, and tormented on the cross for a brief three hours at the end, Jesus experienced all of human pain. Chronic and Acute. And bore it all. Still does.
Ash Wednesday was a hard day for me. I am all about ritual and liturgy, marking the beginning and ending of things, praying familiar prayers, singing familiar songs. But not this year. There was no in-person worship. (Before the pandemic, no one modified “worship” with “in-person.” What other kind was there?) No nods to shoppers in the grocery store who bore the same ash cross on their foreheads. No confessional comradery. No quiet gathering at the Lord’s Table.
But the experience of an ash-less Ash Wednesday has become a chronic condition for us. We suffered the same emptiness on Easter, Pentecost, Reformation, All Saints, Christmas, Epiphany, and all the Sundays, holy days and weekdays in between. As is true for those who live with chronic pain, the emptiness of our isolation from one another feels almost normal now. We do the best we can—in worship and in all other aspects of our lives, but . . . Well, you know. It’s not the same.
Please join us Sunday, as we learn more of Jesus’ chronic wilderness suffering in Worship. Please remain with us after worship for a special edition Vitality Talk, introducing our Lent Challenge, and to new ways with words like Advocate, Anti-Racist, Ally.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that suffering and sorrow can fall more heavily on some than on others. Whole zip codes have been traumatized by the virus, while others can count the trouble on one hand. That is not accidental. Those who are privileged to still be standing, have an obligation to recognize the systems and patterns of behavior that contribute to the inequity of this national tragedy. And if this undeniable reality and our conversations about systemic racism and its accompanying ills makes us uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. Like the irritation that accompanies a closing wound, our discomfort means healing is happening.
Which is worse? Chronic pain or acute trauma? Systemic racism or random violence? Sinful nature or sinful acts? Do we get to choose? Isn’t there another option?
I’m deeply grateful for the honesty with which we have endured this pandemic. It’s not been easy, and it’s not over. Suffering together—both the acute and chronic kind—is easier when we suffer it together.
“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post