Tuesday: Psalm 119:57-112 & Philippians 3:12-4:1

From Amanda Bennett

Lately, I have found myself completely stumped by the question "How are you?" If you have asked me this question recently, I probably either stared at you blankly or launched into an explanation of why I wouldn't answer, complete with an analysis of the assumptions underlying the question (my sincere apologies to all who have tried to greet me and unwittingly entered the Existential Angst Splash Zone.) My problem isn't that I'm afraid to be honest or that I think the people asking this question are insincere. It's just that, well, I've been complicated.

Psalm 119 articulates some of the complexity I feel in verse 71: "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes." Verses like this used to strike me as pious niceties without much basis in reality. Suffering is painful, it sucks, and no one wants to go through it. Saying that affliction is good because it teaches us about God sounds like the right Christian response, but it also sounds like spiritual heroics that I'm inclined to leave for the super saints. However, as I'm in the middle of a season of pain and sadness that I have sometimes described as "gruesome," I have to admit that I have deepened over the last year. I have learned things about God that I never would have been open to if grief hadn't ripped me apart. This has made my relationship to sorrow difficult to explain. I'm in pain, but God is working, so is my life going well or not?

Paul adds more layers to my questions in this reading from Philippians. Verse 12 of chapter 3 says, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own." If we back up to verses 10 and 11, we see what Paul is striving to make his own: "that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from dead." If the Psalmist sees his affliction as a good thing because it has taught him God's law, Paul has all the more reason to value suffering in light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Paul is pressing on to the resurrection, which he attains through identifying with Christ's suffering and death. Now, I'm sure that I could have articulated this theology in the past, but it has been jarring to grapple with what this means in practice when I actually feel like I'm being crucified. When I'm going through particular, messy, unromantic and seemingly meaningless pain, do I believe that Christ is with me and transforming my suffering? Do I believe I will be raised with Jesus when I have to face my real need for resurrection? Through a lot of kicking and screaming, I have been gradually learning to see my suffering as a place where Jesus is, a place where I am dying with him and he is sharing in my sorrows. Experiencing God's presence in the middle of (rather than in spite of) my grief has felt backward, almost absurd. Sometimes I wonder if I am just trying to force meaning onto essentially random experiences by imagining God's presence. I find myself apologizing to people when I explain how I believe God is using suffering to give himself to me, trying to convince them that I'm not covering up my pain with a cliche Christian answer. But the honest truth is that this all hurts so much, and Jesus is here, and I can't simplify that reality. I can only make sense of it by holding those two truths together in my hands.

Paul describes those who "walk as enemies of the cross of Christ" as people whose "god is their bellies" (v. 18, 19). I have always loved the power of this description even while I wince in recognition. I get the image of people whose only concern is to satisfy their appetites, letting themselves be governed by any and all desires. This is in contrast to those who "await a Savior," people who "press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (v. 20, 14). Rather than satisfying the immediate cravings of the flesh, they wait for a delayed gratification that will bring the true fulfilling of their desires. Psalm 119 declares that God's words are "sweeter than honey to my mouth," a picture of finding delight in what will actually satisfy our hunger (v. 103). These descriptions make me cringe a bit because, if I'm honest, I have a very hard time living hungry in a world that is always offering me something I can use to fill myself, or at least to distract myself from my emptiness. Learning to want what is actually good but not immediately available takes discipline. But sitting with my real hunger is how I can learn to recognize real blessing. I usually want much less than real life. When I'm focusing on the wrong aches, the blessing that comes to fill me looks lopsided. In this season I have been hungry and thirsty, but God has been slowly teaching me to long for the right things, and that ache is somehow more sustaining than all the things I think will satisfy me.

The best answer I've come up with to "How are you?" is "I'm in a deep place." I know that's probably more than people bargain for when they try to strike up a conversation with me, but it's the best language I have for my experience. I am sitting in a crack in myself where I am empty and broken and sad, the place where I see Jesus and feel his peace. It's a place where I am learning to stay hungry and a place where I am being satisfied. I am trying to accept that, somehow, all of these things are not contradictions. I would not have chosen to be here, but while I wait to be filled and made whole I trust that my experience of Christ with me is not just pious wishing: it is solid reality, a piece of the promise that I share in his resurrection.

I moved to Boston from Tennessee last January to pursue my dream of living in Boston. I currently reside in a house in Dorchester with five other women and two cats. When I'm not thinking intensely or trapping people into listening to my stories, I go to my job as a part-time nanny.