The lesson of burying pain instead of confronting it

The lesson of burying pain instead of confronting it

September 16, 2012
Stina Pope

I heard an interesting story the other day. There was a traveler who came to a village to do some business, and as it was late, he found a place to spend the night. After he had gone to bed, he heard a strange soft shuffling noise. It kept up, so he decided to get up and see what was going on. He carefully looked out the window, and to his amazement, he saw a long line of people with shovels in their hands. He went back to bed, and he noticed that people seemed tired in this place.

The next night, he heard the same noise, and sure enough, there was again a long line of people, all with shovels in their hands. His curiosity got the better of him, so he snuck out to see if he could find out what was going on. He could see that the line of people went up the hill, and so he circled around and climbed the hill from another direction, so as not to be seen. He got to the top, and sort of hid behind a tree. All he could see was people digging with their shovels. It made no sense.

Then, he realized that there was another person like him, also watching, who also did not have a shovel. Since that person obviously had seen him, he went over to ask if the other watcher knew what was going on. Oh yes, was the answer. They are coming up here to try to bury the pain that they thought they had buried last night.

[pullquoteleft]Trying to bury our pain and fear simply does not work, but when we face our pain and fear in the light of day, things begin to change. When we acknowledge pain and fear as our latest teachers, nothing more, and nothing less, things begin to change[/pullquoteleft]The man I heard this story from went on to talk about how trying to bury our pain and fear simply does not work, but that when we face our pain and fear in the light of day, things begin to change. When we acknowledge pain and fear as our latest teachers, nothing more, and nothing less, things begin to change.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to acknowledge my pain and fear! Pain and fear hurt, and it is normal to run from them. But when we do, they gain power and influence, until at last, they become our god. The alternative, and it is the only one I know, is to turn and face down the pain and fear, and put them in their place, which is definitely not on the throne of God. When we look at them with an eye to what they have to teach us, what wisdom they hold for us, they may not feel nice, but we can then learn the lesson they bring to us, and often, they move on.

The land of Israel that Jesus lived in was an occupied territory. They paid tribute to Rome. The one concession that the Jews had that no other group in the Roman empire had, had to do with religion. The Jews did not have to acknowledge the emperor as god. Although individual Jews might be persuaded to put a pinch of incense in the fire in front of the statue of the emperor, the Jews as a whole had made it clear that rather than acknowledge the emperor, they would all die, bringing as many Romans down with them as they could, of course, but that was a side effect.

Now the way that the Romans governed was really very practical. As much as possible, they kept subjugated peoples in place, although they brought new people in to intermarry. They had their own people at the top in each area, but when possible, left societies intact. No other group had the immense aversion to acknowledging the emperor as the supreme God among gods – but because the Jews claimed to have only one God, this was an insurmountable problem. The Romans decided it was not worth the trouble.

In the face of the immense Roman presence, the concept of “messiah” grew more important, and became more delineated and embellished.  The one who would bring salvation, as Marcus Borg tells us, would deliver them from the hated Romans, and therefore naturally became a figure that was equated with dealing with military might. Indeed, Jesus was only one of a long line of “saviors” that the Romans executed for their pretensions of bringing down the Roman rule. And it is not surprising that Jesus also was executed, given that long line. The Romans did not waste time or energy with the subtleties of Jewish argument. The people were saying Jesus was a savior – the Romans knew what that meant, and that was the end of Jesus, as far as the Romans were concerned.

So it is in the middle of this mentality that we see the interchange between Jesus and Peter. What we have here is certainly a shorthand version of what actually happened, but it gives enough of a picture. The first part has Jesus asking what the people are saying about him, specifically, who/what he is. This is played out more in the other Gospels – it is an important marker. It starts with what the “people” are saying, and then quickly moves into, “and what do you say?”

Then Peter makes his famous pronouncement: “You are the messiah, the savior.”

The second piece has Jesus teaching the disciples what a messiah really is, and is not. You can just see the disciples looking at each other in disbelief. Jesus has obviously lost his mind! We all know what a messiah does – he is the strong and mighty man of God who drives out the Romans. And Jesus says no, that’s not it at all. In fact, the messiah dies. Well, clearly, Jesus has gotten depressed and needs some help, so Peter tries to explain things to Jesus, reminds him of all the support he has, and so on.

Third piece: Jesus says no, you’re totally wrong, in a very graphic way. Furthermore, he says, if you are ashamed of who and what and how I am, God will be ashamed of you. Whoa! Those are amazing and powerful words.

So what does this have to do with the story about burying the pain?


The people were in pain – they were in occupied territory! At one point, the Romans came in and slaughtered a pig in the temple. For us, that would be like having the foreign soldiers come in and having sex on the altar. The people were in pain, and they, naturally, wanted to be done with pain. They thought that a messiah would come and take care of everything for them.

Jesus says no, the true messiah is going to change the rules, and then teach you how to release the pain.

We don’t like it much when people change the rules on us. Do you know this saying: Better the devil you know, which is close kin to, don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire. The disciples just could not wrap their minds around the astonishing new concept that Jesus was presenting, that the messiah should die. It simply didn’t compute.

It still doesn’t. The idea of a God who dies is absolutely appalling to the rest of the religious world. It is not that hard to deal with the religious founder dying – Buddha died, Moses died, Lao Tsu supposedly died, at least there is no claim that he lives, Mohammed died, and so on, but none of them were considered “God.” The claim that Jesus was/is God is not really that outrageous by itself, until we add the “and then he dies” to it.

That is, we have the claim that Jesus was “Emmanuel – God with us,” which is not hard to swallow when you look at what he did. Jesus as Son of God gets harder, in a society where the son carried the authority of the father, unless you put it in context of us all being children of God, which Jesus also asserted. But having the one who is supposed to save us die? The disciples choked on this terrible idea. How can the messiah who is supposed to save us die? Isn’t that a total contradiction?

[pullquoteright] Jesus says, you have to be willing to walk into the pain, you have to walk into the enemy camp without fear, you have to be willing to die, you may have to die, and from that, real and fundamental rock-bottom change will happen, from that, resurrection happens.[/pullquoteright]If you follow the wisdom of the world, it is. What Jesus tried to get people then and now to realize was that he was talking about a different wisdom, a different truth, a different reality. It makes sense to bury the pain – there’s just one problem, it doesn’t work. It makes sense for the savior to lead the people against those causing pain. There’s just one problem, it doesn’t work.

If you want something that works, Jesus says, you have to be willing to walk into the pain, you have to walk into the enemy camp without fear, you have to be willing to die, you may have to die, and from that, real and fundamental rock-bottom change will happen, from that, resurrection happens. It is no accident that Mahatma Gandhi carefully studied the stories of Jesus.

The power of the resurrection does not happen without the cross. In the symbol of the cross, we are reminded that an integral part of the life to which Jesus calls us includes disappointment and defeat and suffering and death. But there are two more important pieces in this way of life – resurrection and “God with us,” which is very good news.

In this time of political uproar, this time of economic pain, this time of immense fear, this time of disappointment and defeat, we would do well to choose to come back to the one who refused to play the political game, the one who walked into the fear, who reached out with his hands and lifted the pain, the one who did things differently and offered us a vision of the kingdom of heaven here on earth. It is not an easy choice, but it is the way of life, real life.

Where are the places where things have gotten to you? Where the pain is too much, the fear too high? Where does the earth feel like it’s moving under your feet, and make you willing to do whatever it takes to find firm ground, never mind your integrity! We all have these places, sometimes they are bigger than others. Sometimes we realize we have allowed them to govern what we think and do, we have allowed them to become god. What happens if you invite Jesus to come into those places? What happens if you lift your eyes and realize that God is already there, in our pain and fear and disappointment and death, because God has promised to be there with us, always. Thanks be to God!

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