A pair of dogs showed up on our street toward the end of October. They were clearly bonded and traveling together. Their humans has abandoned them. Or maybe together they had somehow managed to escape cruel treatment.
One of them looked like a Blue Heeler, only brown and with a tiny bit of black. Her pack-mate appeared to be a cross between a Corgi and a Dachshund. The most pronounced feature on both of them was their protruding ribs.
My next door neighbor Lexi and I slowly approached them with food and water. We spoke to them in soothing tones. The dogs initially kept their distance from us. But they ate the food greedily when Lexi set the bowl down and we backed away.
Eventually, both dogs ate from my hand and let me gently pet them. Lexi fosters dogs, so she volunteered to work toward getting them adopted and, in honor of Halloween, named them Candy and Corn, respectively. Corn now romps with Lexi’s other two dogs while she awaits adoption. Candy succumbed to heart worms.
When I got the news that Candy had died, a heavy sadness descended upon me. My heart had gone out to her for the neglect and the hunger and the fear that she had suffered. Candy and I had formed a tender bond, and my hopes had gotten up that we had saved her from a life of misery and deprivation.
Letting yourself care about another creature in their suffering—whether it’s a dog or a cat or a human being—will stretch your heart and probably even break it. But Jesus teaches us that, paradoxically, we only begin to live a genuinely human existence once we care for the suffering.
Once, when the time for his crucifixion was fast approaching, Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple and reminded his followers of God’s promise to restore all things to wholeness. When they wondered when that would happen, Jesus basically said, “Well, you know, there’s actually no telling. But before it does, things are going to start getting pretty real round here.”
Jesus told them that there would be wars and natural disasters, persecution of religious minorities and famines. You might be accustomed to hearing this litany of suffering as a list of signs that the Second Coming is around the bend. But think about. There have always been wars, disasters, persecutions, and famines. Jesus was saying, “People suffer. Pay attention. Lean in. Make it personal.”
That’s when he said, “By your endurance you will save your souls.” (Luke 21:19) He didn’t mean that by suffering we would go to heaven. Instead, he was telling us that how we engage this world’s suffering will shape our spiritual DNA.
Suffering is a constant on this planet. And Jesus issues a remarkable invitation to his followers: be the image of God you were created to be. God does not will or ever require suffering. In the cross and resurrection of Christ we see that God enters into human suffering in order to transform it.
When Jesus urges us to take up our cross and follow him, he is calling us to participate in his mission. To embrace the world’s suffering and let that suffering stretch us and transform us. That is how God is going to transform the whole world’s suffering into new life.
Richard Rohr puts it this way:
“Christians are meant to be the visible compassion of God on earth…. They agree to embrace the imperfection and even the injustices of our world, allowing these situations to change themselves from the inside out, which is the only way things are changed anyway.” (The Universal Christ, p. 147)
Caring for those who suffer makes us vulnerable. But it does not make us fragile. Instead of leaving us shattered, it changes us “from the inside out.” We begin to love what God loves how God loves it. That is the very essence of eternal life, the life that transcends even death.